Voice of a Generation

How can shipping cater for a new generation of seafarers?

By Felicity Landon

Generational differences and tensions are nothing new. So, is Generation Z a special case when it comes to seafaring? Well, according to experts, quite apart from their particular priorities and expectations of life, Gen Z have different learning styles; they have grown up in a digital world; and their experiences are often vastly at odds with the experiences of their parents and grandparents.

Raal Harris, chief creative officer of Ocean Technologies Group (OTG), which specialises in digital learning, assessment, HR and fleet management in the maritime sector, points out that the industry is never dealing with a single generation – indeed, at present there are areas where the age profile is going up – so it’s a case of handling a wide range of expectations.

“We have to work with the people we have as well as attracting young people, so we also have to be mindful that the older population will hopefully be working in the industry for some time to come and have a lot of knowledge capital. So, we need to look at the whole cohort,” he says.

A lot of what OTG does is driven by the kind of world that Gen Z has grown up in, he says – but that isn’t exclusively about Gen Z. “For example, learning styles and attention spans are largely considered as a Gen Z concern but your and my attention span is equally lowered, for the same reasons. More broadly, we need to accept the shift in the way we like to live and work, with our lives moving more digitally. What do we need to do to keep pace with the demands and expectations of a rapidly digitalised population?”

Gen Z has been brought up in a world which is “clamouring for their attention”, he says. “Things are configured and put forward to them in a way that they like. They are being asked their opinion on everything.

So what happens when you put them into a traditional workplace with a command and control structure?”

The ‘why do it?’, ‘because I say so’ exchange could become tricky. “These are people who expect to know everything about the strategy, and why and how a decision is made. They have that sense of entitlement, rightly or wrongly, to be involved and consulted. However, our industry certainly isn’t designed like that. You can’t have people saying ‘I don’t think we should go to the muster points’.”

The younger generation has been brought up with the idea that everyone should be an individual, while the industry is purposely avoiding that concept; everything is based on rank and on people knowing their place clearly, he says. Harris believes a safe, efficient ship is not about individuals, but more about replaceable cogs in a very well-run machine: “The new generation doesn’t want to work or think like that but we are not in a position to change it entirely.”

More support needed

What can be done? Harris says shipping needs to become more supportive. “It is really important that the leadership teams have the requisite soft skills to adapt their leadership styles and maybe chamfer off the edges when it comes to how they talk to people. Just as we have had to work at having different nationalities, cultures and religions working together, the same applies to the intergenerational situation – they see things in a different way.”

There are interesting angles here. Previous generations often had a hard time at school, being bullied by other children and even by the teachers. The upshot of ‘going through the mill’, however undesirable society would see this as today, is that you generally become very resilient, says Harris. “However, if you have an education system which prepares you to be consulted, involved and no one loses, it can be challenging when you find yourself in the real world.

“There are good things that will come out of all this. If you have different perspectives, you have better decisions. The generational shift may lead to positive behaviour in terms of safety, too – Gen Z are less afraid to challenge a decision about the well- being of the vessel, environment or people.”

Generation Z are used to searching through material and finding their own information, and that should prompt a move to more self-learning. This, he says, is a generation that will ask ‘Why’. In training, therefore, it’s important to explain why they are being asked to do a particular course and make clear the benefits to them as an individual.

Even more important, says Harris, is that young people know what they are expected to achieve, and that their goals are aligned with the company.

Change of perspective

Maritime workplace and well-being coach (and former seafarer) Tineke Zoet tackled the issue of bridging generational gaps in the maritime workplace during a recent presentation to InterManager members. She says that bringing the generations together is “more about changing your perspective than your opinions”.

It’s important to recognise that older generations went through a childhood with certain political and social climates, raised by another different generation. “My parents were hierarchical, my father came from parents who had suffered war trauma,” she says. “We learned – have a steady job, don’t complain, build up your savings, go through your career – and that was the measurement of success. That fear came from our parents. However, 20-year-olds, at least in the West, are living in a bubble where ‘everything is possible’.

“They have access to the internet worldwide and, they can compare themselves to anybody they like, they can go to any school, there are more possibilities, but the younger generation have different stressors. There is so much choice that they are almost going into procrastination, and developing mental health issues.”

Essentially, human beings don’t change and most come with the same fears and insecurities even if they ‘unwrap them’ differently, says Zoet, but every generation has something to pass on, every generation will come up with something that their parents won’t be happy with and every generation sees the world in a different way. “You have to see the wonderful things that this younger generation will bring in. They have their own ways, they see how we messed up the environment, you see youngsters going into this movement and many following.

“They are saying ‘our parents messed up, we are going to do it differently’. They see people burn out at work at the age of 40 and ask – is this it, really it? They feel there must be more to life, and they know there is more.”

How this translates into life and careers at sea is interesting. Zoet started her career as an officer with the Dutch Merchant Navy in 1999 and spent several years working on cargo ships. It was, she recalls, a ‘very lonely existence’.

“Younger generations don’t want to go through the ranks like we did. They don’t want to work 9 to 5, especially at sea – they can get better conditions and work elsewhere. They have different ideas about how the work-life balance should be. The worry is that there is going to be a huge gap in senior captains in the future. How do we keep the younger generation at sea long enough for them to be trained well enough?”

Work-life questions

Can an industry thrive where the new generation see work-life balance as more important than the job itself?

“Previous generations went to sea for six months or even a year at a time and nobody questioned it,” says Zoet. “Now people want better leave systems.”

Connectivity is vital – “no one wants to be at sea for six months without Instagram”, she says. “There are fewer and fewer crew on board so there is more work to be done and long hours. It is going to be lonely, so you do want to have wi-fi. The younger generation want better rest hours. That means a complete shift in how you work and operate – which is not a bad thing, because sleep deprivation is still a major factor in human error leading to accidents.”

Ship owners and managers have been shifting their attitudes fast. Mental health ‘didn’t figure at all’ a few years ago; today, there is a growing focus on mental health, well-being and the human element.

If shipping remains old-fashioned in many ways, the younger generation are perfectly placed to push the industry forward in the 21st century, with their inbuilt understanding of digital tech.

“The younger generation bring huge opportunities and new ideas. The older generation may think ‘we have always done it this way and it works, so why change a system?’ – but they should be careful. The younger generation brings fantastic research and knowledge and new abilities and tech that many of us can’t even comprehend.

However, she warns, just because every generation brings its own ideas and evolution, this does not mean that everyone in Gen Z has the same aspirations or attitudes. “Your life filters are different to those of the person standing right next to you.”

Everyone has to understand that others don’t all think the same way as them. Finding common ground, focusing on conflict resolution, are key, says Zoet.

More demanding?

Yrhen Bernard Sabanal Balinis, a seafarer in his mid-20s, journalist, International Maritime Organization (IMO) Goodwill Maritime Ambassador, and also part of the UN Division for Ocean Affairs and the Law of the Sea (UNDOALOS) Pool of Experts, focusing on maritime transport, agrees that there is resistance from young people when they are told ‘what to do and what not to do’.

“The more experienced seafarers are telling us that we are becoming more demanding. This may not come as a surprise, but it is because we have as a generation more opportunities, more avenues career-wise,” he says. “The younger generation are asking why so much emphasis is put on money, when they are more impact driven. There is a shift from accruing money to making a lasting impact on the planet, making it more sustainable for their children’s children.”

While globalisation has opened up more opportunities, many seafarers feel they have less support from their employers, says Balinis. “As digitalisation comes, inevitably there will be fewer people on board – and that means there will be more work divided among the crew, but there is not much increase in wages or support.”

He says the problem is not so much about attracting youngsters to go to sea – it’s keeping them engaged and on board from that point.

Young people appreciate getting involved in other activities, such as the INC-4 plastics pollution campaign, including marine plastics, says Balinis.

Engagement possibilities

Shipping companies can take steps to keep their younger seafarers engaged – for example, through onboard internet connection, the opportunity to change a policy implementation in the SMS, or the possibility of career transition in an office.

There is no definitive solution and much of his own campaigning work is trial and error. “That includes civic engagement, hosting roundtable discussions, and localised SDG seminars that will feed into some UN processes. The rationale is for them to realise there is more to maritime than seafaring.

“We also can’t overlook the family’s conception or misconception of how younger seafarers view the industry. On a panel at a recent forum, I was asked if I would encourage or inspire my children to be seafarers. My answer: it’s a false dichotomy, if I’d answered no, I would be viewed as a hypocrite who wouldn’t expose my kin to hardships yet go around saying how wonderful maritime is. If I said yes, people would still think I am a hypocrite or naïve.

Perhaps the better question we have to ask is that, as parents, are we selfish enough to deprive our children of the opportunity to choose for themselves?”

Finally, he acknowledges: “We are not without blame. Youth have become more demanding indeed. But perhaps it’s because the things that the previous generation blindly followed and accepted as a norm, we are now questioning and shaking. Work-life balance and mental health – which were virtually fantasies before – have now become a focus for the younger generation in general, not only seafarers.”