Generations, Courts, and Ethics

How do different generations view their role in the court workplace?  Answering this question, and others, could be crucial for making the courts more attractive as a career and increasing public trust and confidence in the judicial system.

Karl Thoennes
Administrator, Second Judicial Circuit, Sioux Falls, South Dakota

Peter Kiefer
Court Administrator, Maricopa County Superior Court, Phoenix, Arizona

A frequent trend we observe concerning court ethics is how the different generations regard the use of social media. We have noticed how many older court professionals view Facebook and Twitter as odd venues for broadcasting one’s opinions to the entire globe: an electronic billboard to the world if you will. Younger court professionals tend to view the social network as a semiprivate chat room: an electronic version of a local pub where one can express one’s opinion without fear of the conversation leaving the friendly confines.

The gulf between these two viewpoints is wide, and we will return to it later in the article. We started thinking about other areas that might display differences between the generations. Of course, this is well-trod ground. A late 1980s in-service training called “Who You Are Is Where You Were When,” by Dr. Morris Massey, explored how the different generations looked at work life. We do not presume that this article will uncover any groundbreaking theories, but we thought it would be interesting to look at how the generations approach work in the courts and court codes of conduct.

This article will explore several questions:

  • What are the similarities between generations?
  • What differences appear to be long lasting?
  • What differences appear to be the result of where a particular generation happens to be in time?

Literature on the Generations

There is a mountain of literature describing the various generations. Here is but a snapshot based upon a sampling of articles.

  • Traditionals—born before 1945 (Morgan and Ribbons, 2006): Traditionals grew up in the aftermath of the Great Depression and during World War II. Dealing with economic hardships made them disciplined and self-sacrificing. Their reward was living the American Dream and enjoying steadily rising affluence.

Most traditionals are now retired. They were (and are) typically loyal, disciplined team members who work within the system; their “word is their bond.” They are patient, respect authority, are detail oriented, and follow the rules. They know an organization’s legacy and embody a traditional work ethic, possess a sense of obligation and fiscal restraint, and like formality and a hierarchical chain of command. Baby Boomers may view them as dictatorial and rigid. Traditionals may be inept with ambiguity and change.

  • Baby Boomers—born between 1945 and 1964 (Morgan and Ribbons, 2006): Boomers are the largest generation in the United States and typically grew up amid economic prosperity and suburban affluence. Most will reach retirement within the next 25 years. They knew strong nuclear families with “stay-at-home” mothers. Significant events for them included the Vietnam War, the Civil Rights movement, the Kennedy and King assassinations, Watergate, and Woodstock (Pekala, 2001).

Boomers are optimistic, ambitious, competitive, and focused on their personal accomplishments. They believe in working long hours and expect the younger generations to adopt this same approach. They are more accepting of diversity and are reluctant to go against peers and the judgment of others who do not see things the way they do. They believe themselves a “special generation” and possess a sense of entitlement. They are depicted as “workaholics” and equate work with self-worth. Generation X may see Boomers as political, process oriented, and inflexible. Traditionals may see them as self-absorbed and overly forthcoming.

  • Generation X—born between 1965 and 1980 (Tolbize, 2008): Generation X grew up as “latchkey” kids in a world of divorce, working mothers, the decline of American global power, and the rise of economic insecurity. They are independent, self-reliant, autonomous, resilient, adaptable, creative, and entrepreneurial. They have an “I don’t need someone looking over my shoulder” attitude, although they are accustomed to receiving instant feedback. They are very comfortable with computers and value continuous learning and skill development.

Having seen their parents laid off or face job insecurity, they have redefined loyalty. Rather than being loyal to their company or organization, they are committed to their work and the people they work with. They are strongly loyal to their family and friends. They are skeptical risk takers who want fun in the workplace. They demand more balance between work and free time than they see from the Boomer experience.

They are more interested in accomplishment than “watching the clock.” Some employers complain that younger workers are uncommitted to their jobs and work only the hours required and little more. Boomers may see them as impatient, results oriented, and overly willing to discard time-tested strategies. Generation Y may see them as too set in their ways and out of touch (Dittman, 2005).

  • Generation Y—born since 1980 (Scheef and Theilodt, 2009): Members of Generation Y (also known as Millennials) were raised at the most child-centric time in history (Ludden, 2012). They received a great deal of attention and high expectations from parents. They are confident and may appear cocky. They are typically team oriented and work well in groups, as opposed to individual endeavors. Having juggled sports, school, and social interests while growing up they are used to tackling multiple tasks with equal energy and so expect to work hard. They are “hyperconnected” to each other and the mobile Web and view the World Wide Web as an “external brain” (Anderson and Rainie, 2012).

The traits described are broad characteristics of the different generational cohorts and lead to new questions.[1] Are some traits a result of a specific generation being younger and expecting to rise up through an organization? Are some traits of older generations the result of being comfortable with current circumstances, thus each younger cohort looks at the next older one as rigid or inflexible? Dr. Jennifer Deal’s (2007) hypothesis is that there is no generation gap. As each younger generation matures it will naturally take on the characteristics of the next older generation.

Are some traits permanent? Certainly the blinding speed with which technology advances is not a transitory trend. Younger generations accept technological change with blasé familiarity; the older generation tends to becomes befuddled and bewildered.

How are these traits exhibited in the court environment? Will we see these common characteristics play out in the courtroom and the clerk’s office, or is the court profession immune to what might be a collection of stereotypes?

The Cohorts

We must start by admitting that the survey we conducted is not a statistically valid random sample. We primarily chose members of the National Association for Court Management (NACM) as the Baby Boomer cohort, then asked Boomer Generations, Courts, Ethicsrespondents to recommend staff within their own courts as respondents for the Generation X and Generation Y cohorts. Having given that advisement, our survey still raises some interesting questions and describes some characteristics worth watching in the future. We ended up with the following numbers for the different cohorts from a geographically diverse array of respondents.[2]

Working Titles

Over four out of five Boomer respondents were court administrators; three were district administrators; two were clerks of court; one was an administrative judge; and one was a family case service administrator. Respondents in both the Generation X and Generation Y cohorts held various operational titles with no one title predominating. Generation X included three court administrators, two district executives, a clerk of court, a court manager, an assistant court administrator, court services managers, judicial proceedings specialists, courtroom clerks, and IT specialists. Generation Y included a clerk of court, court officers, judicial proceedings officers, judicial assistants, an executive assistant, case managers, judicial clerks, and a treatment specialist.

Generations, Courts, EthicsEducation

Well over 80 percent of the Boomers have postgraduate degrees, with most having a master’s degree. (Two have master’s degrees and are ICM Fellows; one has a J.D. and will become an ICM Fellow in 2012.) Over half of the Generation X respondents have a master’s degree or have some graduate school. About a third of Generation Y respondents have a college degree, and more than a quarter have either an associate of arts degree or some college experience.

Attending School While Working for a Court

Most Boomers went to school either at night or on weekends while working. One Boomer got his master’s degree while working at a law firm during the day. Less than one in four of the Generation X respondents and even fewer of the Generation Y respondents attend school while working.

The Court as a Career Choice

We asked the three cohorts variations of the question regarding their decision to make a career out of working for the court system. We asked Boomers if they saw the courts as their career; we asked the Generation X and Y cohorts if they planned to make the courts their career.

Unsurprisingly, almost all Boomers had planned to make the courts their career. The few who said “no” had worked in a previous profession (frequently the military), having come to the courts after retiring from their first careers. Almost a quarter of Generation X respondents said “Don’t know”; nearly half of the Generation Y respondents said they were uncertain or did not intend to Generations, Courts, Ethicsmake the courts their career choice. This statistic may very well be a result of where Generation Y respondents are in the court organization and how long they have been working for the courts.

Why the Different Cohort Respondents Work for Courts

Respondents in all three cohorts said that their principal motivation for coming to work each day was that court work was interesting. After that, Generation X and Y respondents said that pay was the second most important motivator, where Boomers said that cementing their reputation as court professionals was their next most important reason to work. One interesting result was that receiving insurance and retirement benefits ranked low in all three cohorts as a motivator.

Another interesting attribute was whether courts allowed any of the cohorts to refine their skill set, possibly for other lines of work. Anick Tolbize from the University of Minnesota (2008) mentioned that Generation X workers are specifically interested in expanding their skill sets. This might have been an interesting coupling, since over the years the court system has needed an increasing number of nonlegal and semi-legal specialties. Computer experts, facilities managers, media experts, mental health experts, interpreters, evaluators, mediators, conciliators, and security experts are just a few of the many new specialties that now work with the courts. However, this was definitely not a generational characteristic of court work. The opportunity to refine one’s skills came in either last or second to last in every cohort.

Employee Talents, Skills, and Traits

Respondents in all three cohorts said that the most important talent, skill, or trait that either Boomers looked for in employees, or Generation X or Y respondents prided themselves in having, was the ability to be relied upon to get the job completed. After that, Boomers looked for employees who can relate well with others, while Generation X respondents said it was important to be reliable and be counted on when needed. An interesting trait was that all three cohorts said knowledge of how the court operated was a low priority.

Boomers said the skill they looked for in employees was the ability to relate well with others; Generation X and Y respondents said the skill they thought most important was being well organized. Respondents in all three cohorts said that handling multiple projects (multitasking) rated very highly. The ability to speak a second language rated lowest of all skills.

Generations, Courts, EthicsWorking a Second Job Outside of the Courts

We asked the cohorts versions of the question on working a second job besides their positions at their courts. Boomers were asked if they had ever held a second job; the Generation X and Y cohorts were asked if they currently hold a second job.

This question could cut in several different directions and is ripe for additional research. Holding a second job might indicate that a respondent is still exploring career options and that the court may not yet be one’s final choice. It could also indicate dedication to one’s career in the face of economic difficulties. One Boomer used to type transcripts for a court reporter nights and weekends; a Generation X respondent used to work retail nights and weekends to make ends meet. A second job could, in fact, demonstrate commitment to the justice system. One Generation X respondent’s second job is teaching at a law school.

Close to half of the Boomers and Generation X respondents have worked a second job while at the court during some period in their careers; fewer than one in three Generation Y respondents work a second job. This might be a trend to watch over time to see if the percentage of Generation Y respondents working a second job increases.

Loyalty and the Role of a Court Code of Conduct

We asked a forced-choice question of the three cohorts on what each thought ought to be the primary role of a court’s code of conduct (eliminating the “all of the above” option). Option one was that the code was primarily to inform employees of the organization’s rules and the possible consequences for violating those rules. This depicted the code as a subset of the personnel rules designed to keep staff from getting into trouble. Option two was that the code was to primarily serve as a vehicle for the court to be sure that employees had viewed and understood the code if employees got into trouble. There would never be a question of employees saying that they were not responsible for an incident solely because they were unaware of the code or had only briefly scanned it. Option three was that the code was primarily designed to inspire employees to a higher level of activity and to conveying trust and confidence in the courts with the general public. Option four was that the code informed employees of the procedural steps (including the appeals process) in counseling, disciplining, and terminating employees.

Generations, Courts, EthicsBoth the Boomers and the Generation Y respondents saw the primary purpose of a court code of conduct as a vehicle to convey the personnel rules and potential consequences for violations. Only the Generation X cohort had a significant number of respondents who thought the code should inspire employees. It is also worth noting that nearly a third of the Generation X respondents and over a third of Generation Y respondents thought the purpose of a code was to ensure that employees knew and understood the rules. Presumably following through on this option would entail the court requiring that employees sign an acknowledgment that they had read and understood the code.

Focus of Loyalty

We asked the cohorts whether they (or in the case of the Boomers, if they thought their employees) were more loyal to the court or to their individual work groups. A majority of all three cohorts (Boomers by 69 percent, Generation X by 60 percent, and Generation Y by 64 percent) thought employees were more loyal to their individual work groups than to the court overall. This perception is understandable, but can this loyalty be used to inspire court employees to devote themselves to the larger principles of the courts as a separate branch of government? Tom Langhorne, past president of the National Association of State Judicial Educators, spoke at the 2012 NACM midyear conference in Minneapolis of how the courts are “the heart and soul of us as Americans.” If that is the case, we may need to work at refocusing the loyalty of court professionals above individual work groups to the broader principles of the court system to enhance public trust and confidence in the court system overall.

Court’s Role Regarding Nonwork Time

We asked the cohorts what was the appropriate role of the court regarding managing employees’ second jobs and other after-hours activities. One opinion was that the Generations, Courts, Ethicscourt had basically no business telling employees what they could or could not do after 5:00 p.m. or on weekends. The second opinion was that the court can appropriately direct employees to avoid activities that pose a direct conflict of interest. Typical examples of jobs posing a conflict of interest would be working for a process-service company, teaching at a traffic school, or working for an attorney who regularly appears in court. The third opinion was that the court can appropriately direct employees to avoid seriously inappropriate activities even if they do not pose a conflict of interest. One example might be belonging to a club that promotes a racist ideology. The fourth opinion was that the court could appropriately advise employees on types of jobs and activities that are appropriate and inappropriate. This opinion is wide-ranging, but the court might advise on whether an employee can engage in behavior that is distasteful to the community even if not outrageous or a conflict of interest.

Most Boomers saw that the court can appropriately direct employees to avoid seriously inappropriate activities and outside employment. For example, one Boomer commented that although the court should not become some sort of omnipresent parental figure, “Regulation of outside activities must be tightly restricted to those things which have a direct nexus to the code of conduct/employment.”

Over half of Generation X respondents saw the court’s role as only directing employees to avoid conflicts of interest. One Generation X respondent said, “I don't feel like the court should have a say in what its employees do outside of work, as long as it doesn't affect the employee’s work ethic, such as attendance.” More than one out of every three Generation Y respondents thought the court had no business telling employees what they could or could not do during their off hours. This attitude might be tempered, however, by the nuanced position within the cohort that more responsibility now falls upon the employee instead of the court. One Generation Y respondent reported, “I think people should understand that, no matter where they work, they are a representative of the agency they work for and should conduct themselves in a manner that would reflect positively on the agency they represent.”

Generations 5bThe Social Network

All three cohorts appear comfortable with the social network, with Generation Y being nearly universally involved with the new medium. This is not surprising and may be indicative of the community of the future. All but one Generation Y respondent belonged to a social-network site. Popular sites included LinkedIn, Facebook, Twitter, and Myspace. One Generation X respondent apparently felt compelled to join. She commented that she belonged but was “not a big fan.” On average Boomers have been members of a social-networking site for slightly less than two years; Generation X respondents have been members an average of slightly less than three years; and Generation Y respondents have been members for an average of over five years.

Using the Social Network to Research Candidates

We asked the cohorts whether they thought it was appropriate for courts to research the various social-networking sites when making a hiring decision on a potential new employee. Nearly half of the Generation X respondents and a third of the Generation Y respondents thought it inappropriate for a court to use the social network to research potential candidates.

A typical Generation Y respondent commented, “Social media sites reflect you in your personal life. Though seeing how you communicate/interact in your family and friends would give employers insight into your personality. I believe that candidates should be judged on their interactions with the employer, not the interactions with their family and friends as people are capable of and should keep their professional and personal lives separate.”

Online Education

The contrast is pronounced regarding how the different cohorts accept online education. Only one in three Boomers (36 percent) have enrolled in an online class Generations, Courts, Ethics(although two respondents said that they had taught online classes). Exactly half of the Generation X cohort has taken online classes. One respondent said that she prefers online classes because they are easier to fit into her schedule. Over half the Generation Y respondents (53 percent) have taken online classes. As more classes are offered online, this is a trend to watch. Educators will soon be teaching how to manage multiple information streams, emphasizing the skills of filtering, analyzing, and synthesizing information (Anderson and Rainie, 2012). Boomers may be just inherently less comfortable with online education but will learn to accept this new medium the way they have embraced the social network.

Conclusions and Takeaways

There are a number of implications for court administrators to consider from these initial trend indicators.

Manage increased professional diversity. These day courts rely upon a number of professions, many not dreamed of within the justice system three decades ago. Professionals in information processing, telecommunications, courthouse security, interpretation, mental health, mitigation research, and the media are only a part of the larger court family, and many of these professions have a focus that differs from the strict world of law and legal procedure.

Revisit private-life versus work-life obligations. The younger cohorts’ view of their after-work time and their use of the social media indicate a rising expectation of increased freedom and autonomy in the work/life domain. We may need to reevaluate how much say courts have institutionally over the lives of young court professionals.

Prepare for future demands for a more blended work-education paradigm. The current education levels of the younger cohorts alongside their comfort with innovations such as online schooling and enhanced multitasking could foreshadow an increased demand for work-schooling accommodations in the years to come.

Encourage younger court workers to look to the courts as a professional goal. There are indications of a flagging commitment to the courts as a career and that employee loyalty is more narrowly focused on coworkers as opposed to the judicial branch as an institution. We need to energize younger workers to the prospect that working within the judicial branch is a proud profession worthy of their loyalty and as a career choice.


[1] We are defining “cohort” as a group of individuals with shared experiences during a particular time span.

[2] Respondents came from Canada and the following states: Alaska, Arizona, California, Colorado, Florida, Georgia, Iowa, Maryland, Michigan, New Mexico, New York, Ohio, Oregon, Pennsylvania, South Dakota, Texas, Utah, Virginia, Washington, and Wisconsin.