One CIA station chief admits having trouble getting young case officers to go out at night, a requirement of the job. Generation Z doesn’t see the point.
"Children are now tyrants, not the servants of their households,” Greek philosopher Socrates lamented 2,500 years ago. Generational problems are as old as history’s first eye-roll but when national security is at stake the CIA can’t afford to have age-related conflicts or be 'cheugy' with its tech-savvy Gen Z recruits who just aren’t 'feeling it' #Iykyk.
Zoomers don’t remember life before Facebook and their elders aren’t sure how to deal with upstarts who ask ‘why?’ a lot and feel entitled to a work-life balance. Case in point: former CIA case officer Marc Polymeropoulos knows one Agency station chief who has trouble getting young case officers to work at night, even though that's their job. “To me, that is staggering,” Polymeropoulos told the State Secrets podcast.
He’s also written a column about the Agency’s generational divide: Gen Z and CIA is a Relationship in Need of Counseling. Polymeropoulos’ CIA contacts complain Zoomers are thin-skinned, ‘super woke’, often demand to know why decisions are made, and are at times unwilling to put in the hours required to help defeat US adversaries: “At this rate, according to my peers, one would not be surprised if the young officers unionized.”
Polymeropoulos also notes, however, that while Gen Z may come off as entitled, there’s no point pining for the old days when CIA officers (mostly white males) worked around the clock in an environment of pervasive alcoholism, troubling divorce rates, and at times sexual harassment. The column whipped up social media debate about how to resolve the issue with some Grandpa Simpson-style fist shaking (too much focus on ‘diversity, equity and inclusion’) balanced by praise for Generation Z’s tech skills.
At the heart of the debate is the sense that the CIA, US military, and many other organizations still don’t know how to best work with Gen Z, the 67m Americans born after 1996. Globally, there are nearly 2 billion Zoomers interconnected through digital devices and social media. Two-thirds of them use Instagram at least once a day. They worry about climate change. They are more likely to receive therapy or mental health treatment than any other generation. And 40% of Gen Z plan to leave their job within the next two years.
Gen Z: Tomorrow’s Spies
So, how do you solve a problem like Gen Z?
The CIA has experimented with a social media campaign, Humans of CIA, and a 2021 social media recruitment drive that highlighted a self-identified cisgender Latino intelligence officer. “Be unapologetically you,” the Agency cooed. “Command your space. Mija, you are worth it." The ad unified the right and left - everybody hated it. Britain’s Guardian described the reaction as ‘volcanic’. Former CIA operations officer Bryan Dean Wright told Fox News the ad was “propagandist garbage” while critics on the left accused the CIA of appropriating woke language to gloss over an unsavory history that includes targeted assassinations.
Since then, Langley HQ has refined its tactics. They’ve hired their first Chief Wellbeing Officer, built an airy new gym, created an Instagram account, and launched The Langley Files podcast. There’s even a Love at Langley web page for those who envision CIA postings as lonely nights and long hours in far-flung locations. Potential recruits at the South by Southwest Festival in 2023 were told they’d find digital innovation and ‘supercharged’ spies at the Agency - and if that wasn’t motivation enough: “We got a booth out there with free CIA swag!”
CIA job adverts are now posted on LinkedIn and candidates can apply directly on the Agency’s newly rebranded website. Minority candidates are encouraged to apply, as are those who hold dual citizenship and want to tap their inner Jason Bourne. The rebrand seems to be effective. CIA hiring is at levels not seen since 9/11. The Agency is flooded with 150,000 to 200,000 applicants a year and it is harder to get into than Harvard. Yet, recruiting Gen Z is one thing. Retaining and motivating them to pursue the mission with passion is the next challenge.