Paying it forward

April 1, 2013
I have been blessed with a wonderful career in the dental profession, including the last 22 years as a registered dental hygienist.

I have been blessed with a wonderful career in the dental profession, including the last 22 years as a registered dental hygienist. I have also had the support of dedicated mentors: dentists, dental hygienists, and a wonderful husband of 28 years who has put up with my return to college (twice) and countless years of volunteerism, or "paying it forward." As my baby boomer peers and I reach the twilight of our careers, I wonder what the future of volunteerism in organized dental hygiene will bring.

I wonder what makes the mind-set of baby boomers different from the young dental hygienists coming out of school in recent years. When I graduated in 1990, demographics were similar – a few students were right out of high school, but most were returning students like me, some with young families – even single moms. All of us had busy lives, but we still found the time to give back to the profession. So what makes generations so different?

There has been much research done on generational differences in professional characteristics and expectations. Maybe the baby boomers owe it to our traditionalist parents (those born between 1927 and 1945, also called the Silent Generation), whose work ethics were influenced by the Great Depression and World War II and have been described as being conservative and disciplined with a sense of obligation. Our parents were loyal and dedicated workers who were averse to risk and were committed to teamwork and collaboration.1 Baby boomers (those born between 1946 and 1964) grew up in the time of the civil rights movement, the Vietnam War, political assassinations, and Woodstock. This was an era defined by the notion that change was not only possible, but imminent. The boomers believed they were capable of changing the world. They believed work was equal with "self-worth, contribution, and personal fulfillment."2 Boomers thrive on the possibility of change.

Generation X, also called Generation Me, consists of a smaller group of people. Born between 1968 and 1979, members of Generation X are the children of the older boomers. These children grew up in a period of financial, familial, and social insecurity. This was the first generation predicted to earn less than their parents. Due to two working parents and a high divorce rate, the "latchkey kids" were forced to fend for themselves. Because the family and friends of Gen Xers encouraged them to achieve a work-life balance,3 they are not considered as loyal to employers – or, for that matter, organizations – as they are to their own families.

Generation Y, those individuals born between 1980 and 2002, are also referred to as the Millennial Generation, the Nexters, and the Digital Generation. They are purported to value teamwork and collective action.5 This generation, shaped by computers and parental excesses, is more optimistic and adaptable to change,1 making them a more confident generation. Even with many similar characteristics of Generation X, I see the potential of many of the same core values of the baby boomers.

Having a better understanding of the generational differences in professional characteristics and expectations, why is "paying it forward" so important? This is not a new concept. It originates from the Greek play Dyskolos, circa 317 B.C. The more contemporary expression comes from the 2000 film "Pay It Forward." According to, the concept of "paying it forward" involves doing something good for others in response to a good deed done for you. The most important aspect to remember is that it should be done with a selfless spirit not hoping for repayment, but with hopes that the recipient will pay it forward to the next person who needs it.

In my experience as the scholarship and award chair at my local alumni association since 2002, we have collected and awarded $25,000 in scholarships and thousands more in memorial awards to 45 women and men in the last 20 years. It's not monetary payback – unfortunately, only a handful of recipients have given back in volunteerism to the alumni association or our local dental hygiene association. To the few who did, I am sincerely grateful. If it weren't for the traditionalists and baby boomers, many of these professional associations would cease to exist.

As we enter into a new era, our profession is being overemphasized as a rapidly growing occupation. While being hit hard by the recession, it is even more important that our future dental hygienists step up to the plate. There are many issues that need to be addressed to provide access to dental hygiene care and dental disease prevention all over the country. Dental hygienists are in the perfect position to do this. To borrow a construction phrase, we are "shovel (scaler) ready" and ready to step into new employment opportunities to address these needs. What I didn't realize is that that's what our groups of baby boomers and fellow dental hygiene "nerds" have been doing for years! Here's hoping the new generation will "pay it forward" with volunteerism to our profession. RDH


1. Jenkins J. Leading the four generations at work. American Management Association. 2007. Available at: Accessed April 15, 2008.
2. Yang SM, Guy ME. GenXers versus boomers: work motivators and management implications. Public Performance & Management Review. 2006;29:267-284.
3. Karp H, Fuller C, Sirias D. Bridging the Boomer-Xer Gap: Creating Authentic Teams for High Performance at Work. Palo Alto, CA: Davies-Black Publishing; 2002.
4. ValueOptions. Generation X [Born 1965-1980]. Available at: Accessed April 15, 2008.
5. Zemke R, Raines C, Filipczak B. Generations at Work: Managing the Clash of Veterans, Boomers, Xers and Nexters in Your Workplace. New York, NY: AMACOM; 1999.

Michele J. Rase, CDA, RDH, BS, graduated from Monroe Community College in Rochester, N.Y., with an AAS in Dental Hygiene in 1990. She later completed her Bachelor of Science in Health Care Administration from SUNY Brockport in 2000. She has been an ADHA member for 22 years and served as the president of SADHA as well as for her local DHA component (7DDHA Rochester & Finger Lakes region). She currently serves as the scholarship and awards chair for the Eastman Monroe Dental Hygiene Alumni Association, the student liaison and social media coordinator for her local component, and president-elect of the Dental Hygienists' Association of the State of New York. In addition, she serves on the Advisory Committee of Dental Studies at Monroe Community College.

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