Generational Condescending Aboard the Confederate Raider Shenandoah

Civil War book reveals older generations have dismissed younger generations for, well, generations.

On New Year’s Eve, I popped into my second-favorite bookstore in Chicago to kill some time before a party. I love both Civil War and naval history, so naturally when I found a book that combined both subjects I bought it.

The book was Tom Chaffin’s “Sea of Gray: The Around-the-World Odyssey of the Confederate Raider Shenandoah,” which recounts the history ofa Confederate States Navy ship sent to the Bering Sea to disrupt Yankee commerce by capturing whaling vessels. Interestingly, a good portion of the ship’s journey occurred after the conclusion of the Civil War because, initially, the crew refused to believe U.S. sailors and newspapers that told of Gen. Robert E. Lee’s surrender.

What makes the tale of the Shenandoah relevant to the human resources world is the working relationship between Capt. James Waddell (41 at the time) and the Confederate raider’s executive officer, 1st Lt. William Whittle (24 at the time):

“To some extent, such differences issued from a generation gap. Waddell had completed his studies at Annapolis before an 1851 reorganization, deepening and lengthening the academic program, created the institution attended by most of his younger officers. From his perspective, however, 'practical seamanship cannot be learned from books.' Put another way, if the younger officers saw in the captain’s actions an excess of caution, Waddell tended to see those younger men as, for the most part, untested sailors.”

Waddell and Whittle’s professional relationship sounds similar to the ones we’re used to hearing about concerning millennials and their managers born to earlier generations. By now you’ve probably heard some consultant’s criticism that millennials are the best-educated generation but lack the work experience to support the confidence they’ve gained from their educations. Conversely, some millennials may complain that the older generations are stuck in the past and stubbornly unwilling to embrace a new way of doing things.

Personally, I think such debate is a waste of time. Generational differences exist, but they seem to be greatly exaggerated, especially by consultants looking to make a buck off the millennial-induced annoyances of baby boomers and Gen Xers.

The reason why I felt compelled to write about this subject, though, goes back to a New York Times opinion piece our editorial director, Mike Prokopeak, emailed the editorial department a couple weeks ago. The op-ed argues every rising generation has, unsurprisingly, always irked the better-established older generations, and that the relative stability of the 20th century’s boomers was a historical anomaly.

Capt. Waddell’s annoyance with the cocky Lt. Whittle just seemed to be independent historical proof that youth always has and always will annoy the old, and vice versa. I mean, I’m a millennial and I find myself confused by one of my uncle and aunt’s stereotypical Gen X “helicopter parenting.” Likewise, I find myself annoyed by the now-teenagers I used to babysit in my old neighborhood when I visit my parents. But then I remind myself that my two young cousins are turning out to be great kids thanks to my aunt and uncle, and that, as an immutable rule, teenagers are annoying no matter the era.

Ultimately, I think most people are generally looking for the same things in life: companionship, family and friends, a warm home and a purpose. It’s important to keep things in perspective, note the nuances in generational personalities but not let them get overblown.

Max Mihelich is a Workforce associate editor. Comment below or email editors@workforce.com. Follow Mihelich on Twitter at @workforcemax.