Learning from Generation Z

Fresh thinking and new voices are needed to move the industry forward

By Michael Grey

Seafarers are no different from people ashore and every generation will be critical of those who come after them. We thought we were terribly hard done by in our level of pay and the fact that we signed two-year articles. Our seniors, however, told us that we “had never had it so good” and were fond of telling us about their hard-lying ships, derisory wages, and harsh conditions. My uncle only ever got back to the UK every four years. We just didn’t know how lucky we were, they would emphasise, as they criticised our casual way of doing things.

Thus, it goes on, with successive generations of seafarers, the latest being Generation Z, seeming to have come in for more criticism than most for their reluctance to blindly put up with what their predecessors cheerfully (or blindly) accepted. They, like their shore-side compatriots, have certain characteristics in common. They are more reluctant to accept at face value what they are being told and are quite likely to question or challenge something they think is simply stupid. The litany of “we have always done it that way” will cut little ice with younger people, who can often see a better solution.

They are ambitious and generally unwilling to sit around year after year doing the same job, looking quite openly for promotion and advancement. They are less impressed with companies where seniority is the sole criteria for promotion and will be more likely to move on if they see better opportunities and greener grass elsewhere. And with the facility of the Internet, they will be well equipped to source any opportunities. If an employer wants to retain good people, the job must remain attractive for this more mobile and questing workforce.

Digital age

We might argue that this generation is uniquely different to all those which have gone before in that it is com- posed of people who have grown up in an age of digital technology and have capabilities that would have been barely comprehended even twenty years ago. Older folk have had to painfully learn this stuff, which Gen Z has imbibed practically from their cradles. Properly trained by decent maritime education systems, they are thus very well equipped to make the most of the technology aboard ship, using it to the best of its advantage.

You must hope that clever people from this generation are employed fully in contributing to the revision of the STCW Convention and other important regulatory changes, as they will be very influential in ensuring that what results is fully relevant for future shipping. They need to be listened to, as their ideas will surely be different to those of their elders and should not be ignored.

At a time of profound technical change, the freshest minds are needed to build in technical relevance.

We might also suggest that a generation which is more likely to question established methodology could be well equipped to challenge issues right across the maritime industry, from inadequate design to operational practices that really are ‘past their sell-by date’. And if the ‘establishment’ fails to budge on these changes, this generation will simply not tolerate their continuation and will seek employment elsewhere. As examples, we might think of the inherent hazards and long-term health aspects of prolonged six-hour watches on lean-manned small ships, the inability of present regimes to materially reduce the incidence of enclosed space tragedies, lifeboat casualties, or the frantic pace of modern ship operations.

And bolder, questioning younger officers might eventually suggest that reform of the curious and complex system of ownership and ship registration, right across their industry, is long overdue.