Camp United: Across the Generational Divide

Gwynn M. Powell, PhD
J. Joy James, PhD
Lisa Olsen, MA
May 2017
Photo courtesy of Wilderness Adventures, Jackson Hole, Wyoming.

Which "they" are you? Are you the counselor trying to tell your supervisor that things are not exactly as explained in training and the interview? Or are you the supervisor trying to get counselors to focus and carry out the mission? Either way, there are likely times when you do not feel appreciated, or you feel disconnected when trying to communicate with other staff. Sometimes, we attribute the disconnect between people to being from different generations. It turns out that we typically have more in common with each other than we realize.

The Generations

Currently there are four different generations in the workplace: baby boomers, Generation X, Generation Y, and Generation Z (millennial). Baby boomers (1946–1964) grew up during a time of prosperity; a man landed on the moon and the economic climate was growing. They also faced heartache: the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. and John F. Kennedy, the fear of nuclear war, and the war in Vietnam. That generation was able to live out each day knowing the uncertainty of tomorrow (Robinson, 2017).

Generation X (1965–1980) received the highest level of education in the United States; they witnessed the fall of the Berlin Wall; MTV paved the way for a new outlook on music; and there were millions of jobs available. Generation X lived with hope.

Generation Y (1981–1995) grew up with almost every home having the Internet; global warming became a passionate fight; and the growth in online businesses occurred at great speed. However, they also grew up with 9/11, gun violence rising especially in schools, and in 2008 the largest economic decline since the Great Depression, making the hope of owning a home less realistic. Generation Y became known as the realists (Robinson, 2017).

Generation Z (after 1995), often referred to as millennials, have witnessed hurricane Katrina, the development of social media, and the election of the first African-American President. They still might be in school figuring out their path. They have grown up in a world of technology, and their stated goal is to serve a purpose and make a change in the world. They are upbeat and optimistic about what their future holds and believe they can be anything they want to be (Kroll & Murphy, 2012).

A study by Pew Research (2010) states that members of each generation think they are unique from the other, yet a deeper look shows commonalities. This notion is supported within the camp community by findings from a seasonal staff panel discussion that took place at the American Camp Association Southeastern Fall Conference in 2016. Panel participants of varying ages and backgrounds discussed generational differences and shed light on why camp professionals choose camp, what frustrates them, what makes them feel appreciated, and what they value.

Despite our generational differences, at camp, we are all part of a community. Chances are good that we all support the same mission and philosophy. When camp people participating in the professional panel responded about what things we value, their answers showed we have a passion for what a camp experience can offer participants, we all get frustrated when we feel unappreciated or uninformed, and we all have the same desire to travel and live a happy life.

By committing your time to camp, you have made the decision to put others' needs ahead of your own. Your goal is to better the lives of the people around you. Being part of a community requires you to give, take, and communicate. Whether you are a baby boomer or a millennial, you value camp, or you would not be working at one. Look at these statements about camp from camp professionals from each generation:

  • My happy place. My support and social group. My hope for our future generation. (Baby Boomer)
  • Chance to spend time / develop relationships with some of my favorite people (our campers), which, in turn, teaches me more about self, my leadership. (Generation X)
  • Develops deep, sustainable relationships and love. Shows me that I'm seen/heard and that I have good gifts to give to staff/campers and they have so much to teach me. (Generation Y)
  • Camp is therapy . . . It affirms me, makes me feel necessary, shows me the beauty in our differences, and teaches me how to truly love people. (Generation Z)

While each of these statements is from a specific generation, it is easy to see that it could be any person, regardless of age, making these statements. Across the generations, camp brings people together to make a difference. So if we all want to make an impact through camp, why do we get sidetracked and frustrated with each other?

Ability to Communicate

Even in an idyllic community like camp, frustration occurs between people and its daily grinds can affect our coping skills. As humans, there are common issues that can get us offtrack, but a big issue is our ability to communicate. When miscommunication occurs, think about it from your own perspective and then take into account the generational perspective. The similarities are there, but can be expressed differently by each generation.

  • Communication (Baby Boomer)
  • Lack of communication (Generation X)
  • Lack of communication (Generation Y)
  • People not communicating (Millennial)

For the boomer the focus is on the communication, while for the millennial, the focus is on the people. Sometimes an issue can become personal when that was not the communicator's intent.

Communication is central to a quality camp experience for both the staff and campers. Everyone wants to feel part of the group, but small miscommunications can distract us from the purpose and derail our motivation. If we can have a well of goodwill toward the people we work with, it is easier to forgive and ask questions. In addition, as the season progresses, we can lose energy and overreact to situations. Because of a perceived lack of communication, we might begin to assign motives to actions that may or may not be intended. Sometimes it appears as though the supervisor left someone out of the loop or withheld vital information just to make someone look bad.

Generation X might respond by thinking Next time they might include me. Generation Y might think They don't need me. More than likely, there was a decision that needed to be made in a rush and the decision-maker used the information he or she had at the time. The key is to stop, take a moment, and figure out the best way to approach that person so discussion can take place, and you can understand your reaction to the situation. If you are still frustrated, further conversation might be warranted.

Have a Conversation

When you have the conversation matters. Before you start the conversation to clear up a miscommunication, make sure you are calm and that you are not interrupting work flow. Make sure everyone participating knows that it is an open conversation and you are all there to make sure everyone feels heard. Give each person an opportunity to reflect and form full thoughts. Here are some simple tips and conversation starters to get the ball rolling:

  1. Be proactive. When your gut is telling you something seems off, say "I want to check in with you about X; when would be a good time?"
  2. Go directly to the source so you are not part of the gossip loop. Say "I am hearing X and want to touch base with you to make sure I understand all sides of the issue; what time works for you?"
  3. Be brave. Be willing to be vulnerable and ask what is wrong; say "I really value my work here at camp and want to be part of the solutions; what should I be paying attention to with this issue?"
  4. Be open to talking, and know that not everything can be fixed, but the relationship can build. If the response is not what you hoped for, say "I understand your side of the issue and will work toward the solution you suggested."
  5. Trust. Assume the best in the person and move forward. Close with, "I value your perspective and hope we can continue the dialogue."

All generations of camp people on the panel expressed feeling under-appreciated at times. It is easy to blame generational differences rather than trying to understand people. If we work together as a camp community to create a culture of appreciation, then the magic of camp happens. Be quick with a compliment; offer a thank you and a smile. Surprise affirmations — a note in someone's mailbox, under a plate, or slipped onto a duty roll — can go a long way. Words of encouragement matter. As humans, it is natural to respond positively to a simple "thank you" or "great job."

Across Generations

Many people dedicate their lives to the camp world and work through the frustrations of community living. Ask them what they have gained from camp and how you can apply their wisdom to your current situation. Across all generations, camp people value accountability, energy, enthusiasm, resilience, integrity, and commitment, but the panel participants returned to passion the most. Directors want people who are passionate about campers, coworkers, and their job details. Find a way to see how your job connects to the overall mission of the camp and understand how your small (or large) piece of the puzzle makes it a complete picture. Be the best person for the job now, and show your passion.

Though we all may be different, we have chosen to be in the youth development setting. Camp can play a role in shaping who we are as individuals. One participant from the panel said, "It's my whole life." So, the next time you are frustrated with your supervisor or coworker, consider that they are there for the same reasons as you but express them differently. Value the difference and appreciate the person's contribution to camp. Consider how you can communicate to make someone feel appreciated. By taking this extra step, you can demonstrate your understanding that camp is a community — one that deserves everyone giving their best.

Challenges to Unite Your Camp

  1. Find a way to connect with someone who has been at camp a long time; ask that person what keeps him or her coming back.
  2. Find a way that does not cost money to share your appreciation for people at camp who make your life more pleasant and support the work you are doing.
  3. Find a way to look at a situation from a different viewpoint than just your own. Share your insights with the person to see if you were correct.


Discussion Questions

  1. Think about a disagreement you had with a coworker or supervisor this week. What can you ask that person that will help you understand his or her perspective?
  2. Why did you choose to work at camp and how can you connect your specific job to the mission and purpose of the overall camp program? (If you are unclear about the connection, initiate a conversation with an administrative leader to help you figure it out.)
  3. Who do you respect and admire on the staff? Ask them about what motivates them to give their best to their work. How can you incorporate their thoughts into your actions?


Kroll, T. & Murphy, S. (2012, July 27). The events that have shaped the millennial era. Retrieved from

Piccorossi, M. (2010, February 24). How millennial are you? Retrieved from

Robinson, M. T. (2017). The generations. Retrieved from

Lisa Olsen, MS, is a doctoral student in Park, Recreation, and Tourism Management at Clemson University. Her research interests include camp and youth development.

Gwynn M. Powell, PhD, is on the faculty in Park, Recreation, and Tourism Management at Clemson University, has two decades of camp experience in the USA, Russia, South Africa, and Turkey, and serves on the board of directors for the International Camping Fellowship.

J. Joy James, PhD, has been involved in teaching, resident camps, and environmental education for over 20 years. Currently, she teaches recreation management as a faculty member at Appalachian State University.

Photo courtesy of Wilderness Adventures, Jackson Hole, Wyoming.