The Vet Generation Gap and Where You Fit In

“Each generation imagines itself to be more intelligent than the one that went before it, and wiser than the one that comes after it.” — George Orwell (1903–1950)

Last weekend, I had a lovely catch-up with one of my first bosses; a fantastic mentor, one who I have always had a lot of admiration. Rugby dominates a lot of our attention but pondering the future of the veterinary profession always demands time for discussion. This day, the topic of ‘diversity between generations’ took centre stage. The veterinary profession has seen a significant gender shift in the recent years, becoming increasingly female dominated. But what has stealthily passed by is awareness of the generation divide and its fluid form.

The Generation Divide
In its most basic form, a generation is a group of people born around the same time and live through shared experiences. They display similar characteristics, preferences, and values. For those of you unaware of which category you sit in, see below.

  • Centennials, iGen or Gen Z: Born 1996 and later
  • Millennials or Gen Y: Born 1977 to 1995
  • Generation X: Born 1965 to 1976
  • Baby Boomers: Born 1946 to 1964
  • Traditionalists or Silent Generation: Born 1945 and before

Millenial ‘Live to Work’ or Gen X ‘Work to Live’
According to RCVS Facts 2014, over 55% of the profession now lie within the Millenial generation; the current percentage will be higher than this today. I would argue that a change in perception has coincided with the rise of this generation. As a member of this demographic, some of the stereotypes can be hard to swallow, others we can celebrate.

  • Thought to be less independent than previous generations because of increased parental supervision and financial dependency.
  • Despite a possible sense of entitlement, Millenials are ambitious pack-animals that respect authority yet are assertive and opinionated.
  • Seek work with meaning and mentorship that demonstrates potential for growth; are prone to moving jobs, but can be retained with flexible schedules and measurable outcomes.
  • Generous and prioritise self-actualisation.

The older generation consists mostly of Gen X (1965–1976) but also includes the baby boomers (1946–1964). There is some overlap between the two; these stereotypes can apply to both.

  • Believe good workers share the ‘live to work’ ethos; value time spent at work over results.
  • Want to save the community, not the world. Cynical of major organisations.
  • Prioritise safety and security.

The Exhausting Truth
We’ve all experienced finger-wagging and criticism between generations. I find it exhausting. Older generations take offence when Millenials express a disappointment upon starting clinical life. And the younger generation blames their predecessors for their dissatisfaction. The reality is, had those Millenials been born 20 years earlier the industry would look the same. And had Generation X been born 20 years later, they could well have reservations about remaining in the profession.

How To Save The Future of the Profession
A deeper understanding of differences between generations is required to salvage the future of the industry. I find it exhausting to hear the knee-jerk comment “graduates just aren’t cut out for it these days”. How can professionals share their concerns with this sort of attitude? Millenials by their very nature are trying to make a difference! There are hundreds of vets seeking to improve the future for fellow colleagues, only to be told: “Well this is how it was for us, so just get on with it”. The reality is, they won’t.

This sort of response is remarkable considering issues surrounding mental health in recent graduates. Young professionals would rather bottle up concerns than be vulnerable to ridicule; an appalling position to be in this day and age.

Looking Beyond our Borders
What organisations are failing to realise is that they’re competing with other sectors outside of the profession for staff retention. There is ample opportunity for vets to make a complete career change. Vets are moving into finance, business, technology … the list goes on. These sectors HAVE LISTENED to their next generation of employees and adapted accordingly. Embracing flexible hours, career purpose, working from home and value-based work. As a result, they’ve not only survived but thrived.

I hear you; we’re not comparing apples to apples. However, the fact remains that sometimes the grass is greener on the other side. If we don’t address this now, we will continue to lose professionals at the expense of animal welfare. Employers ignore this advice at your peril. It’s not only your employees but the millennial customer segment who have similar needs and are now the biggest consumers in the general marketplace.

What’s That Coming Over the Hill?
What’s even scarier is nobody has even seen the Centennial generation coming. How is the profession going to nurture these eco-fatigued boomlets who started vet school this year? A mature group who abandoned childhood early with the advent of computers and web-based learning. Will they be looking for mentorship from Millenials, Gen X or technology? Will they be more informed of the realities of clinical practice? If you’re a student starting out it would be interesting to hear your take on the veterinary world as it stands. Feel free to get in touch or comment.

George Orwell said it back in the early 20th Century; it applies now just as it did then. “Each generation imagines itself to be more intelligent than the one that went before it”. So the next time you’re talking to a member of another generation, whether colleague or customer, try to appreciate the view of the World through their lens; it’ll likely to have a different focus to yours. Collaboration and healthy discussion are fundamental to salvage the future of the profession.