By Wes O’Donnell
Managing Editor, Edge. Veteran, U.S. Army & U.S. Air Force
If we don’t figure out why soon, it will become a national security crisis.
Movies have always had an unhealthy influence on me. I came of age in Ronald Reagan’s neon-tinted 1980s, complete with big hair and big action heroes. My role models were people like Arnold Schwarzenegger in Commando, Sylvester Stallone in Rambo, and Carl Weathers in Predator.
Even James Cameron’s Colonial Marines from 1986’s Aliens made militarism cool well before the word “tacticool” (a portmanteau of tactical and cool) was invented in 2004.
These over-the-top action heroes glorified the unstoppable might of the American military; no doubt an effort to save face after the Vietnam War. Even Oliver Stone’s Platoon, arguably an anti-war movie, taught me about self-sacrifice.
For me, joining the military was a grand adventure – A hero’s journey
Joining the Army seemed like an adventure; I thought “I’ll live my action movie fantasy and get college money while I’m at it.” At that age, I didn’t give a millisecond of thought to my own mortality. After all, as 80’s action movies illustrated, bad guys have horrible aim.
When my Army recruiter in Texas used to talk about his job in artillery, his eyes sparkled. It was clear that he loved his job (or at least loved blowing things up). But my mind was firmly set on the infantry, due in part to some weird fascination with hypermasculine men saying catchphrases and shooting bad guys from the hip.
Kids from my generation rushed into military service. Morale was high. By the mid-90s the Soviet Union had collapsed, and our military had just defeated the fifth-largest army in the world in Desert Storm. Twenty years after the end of Vietnam, America was back in the winner’s circle.
But only a shockingly small percentage of today’s young people are considering joining the military. To be clear, my generation, GEN X, was born between 1964-1981, Millennials 1981-1997, and Gen Z 1997 to present.
So, as a member of Generation X, how does my decision to join the Army, (and later the Air Force), differ from today’s youth? And what’s stopping them from considering the military as a viable career option, or at least considering the military as a transition between high school and college?
A perfect storm is brewing
First, some numbers that keep military recruiters awake at night:
71% percent of young people are ineligible to join the military, according to 2017 Pentagon data.
The reasons: obesity, no high school diploma, or a criminal record.
That number is staggering! Only 29% of Gen Z are eligible for military service. Of those young people who are qualified, only 12.5%, the lowest number in a decade, shows any interest in the military.
In a recent panel discussion on this looming crisis, Army Major General Malcolm Frost, the commander of the Army’s Initial Military Training Command said, “I would argue that the next existential threat we have…is the inability to man our military.”
Indeed, the 2019 three-quarters-of-a-trillion-dollar defense budget included a 3.1% military pay raise, the largest in 10 years, to attract more young people.
What’s more, the Army is offering recruits bonuses of up to $40,000, as well as incentives that include student loan repayment.
My enlistment bonus was a measly $2,800 after taxes!
Even the Marine Corps, a branch that never had a problem filling its ranks before, has lowered its standards and, in 2017, started handing out 25% more medical, mental health, recreational drug, and misconduct waivers to be able to reach its enlistment goals.
Adding to the military’s staffing woes, the service branches are preparing to boot servicemembers who refuse the COVID vaccine. How much this will impact force readiness remains to be seen, but it certainly can’t help.
Clearly, the Pentagon must recognize that it has a problem on its hands.
So, what’s going on here?
Value-based generational differences are likely the main culprit
Action movies aside, Generation X and Boomers have similar value systems; so similar in fact, that marketers often group these two generations together for segmentation and targeting purposes: something called the Cohort Effect.
Boomers were six times as likely to serve in the military as Millennials and seven times more likely to serve compared to Gen Z.
Also, Gen Z holds more progressive views on issues like the legality of marijuana and the morality of same-sex marriage. On the flip side, the majority of Gen Z sees the military as a bastion of conservative values like tradition, duty, and sacrifice.
The misconception that all military members and veterans are far-right Republican conservatives is a topic for another essay. But the fact remains that even right-leaning members of Gen Z are politically progressive.
I asked my kids, all Gen Z’ers, why they wouldn’t consider the military as a viable career option:
- One said she was afraid to die, (Understandable)
- Another said he didn’t want to die for no reason, (Getting warmer)
- And the other said he didn’t want to fight in a war that had no meaning. (BINGO!)
Makes sense, I suppose. Coming of age after 9/11, Gen Z is too young to know what real terrorism looks like. From their point of view, they simply see an endless rotation of troops to Iraq, Syria, Africa, and, until recently, Afghanistan.
And remember, these are kids who come from a military family! Their father served on active duty for 10 years. Imagine the responses from kids with no military affiliation.
When I tried to explain to my kids that there were jobs in the military that would keep you relatively safe, like Cyber Systems Operations, they weren’t interested.
I tried to point out that every job is not a “combat arms” job.
It seems clear now that the 20-year-long Global War on Terror severely hurt the Pentagon’s brand. Maybe it’s time for some brand repositioning? You know, the way Lincoln hired Matthew McConaughey to convince us that Lincoln cars aren’t just for grandpa anymore.
If the Pentagon wants to get a handle on this growing crisis, they need to spend their recruiting dollars on campaigns that appeal to this pragmatic, tech-savvy, progressive group.
In theory, the military is the ideal place for Gen Z
Gen Z is extremely comfortable with diversity and inclusion, a well-known trait of the military.
Heck, the armed forces desegregated six years before Brown versus Board of Education. When your life depends on the person next to you, and the bullets start flying, you stop caring about their race, religion, or gender.
Likewise, Gen Z is the world’s first digital native. Exceedingly comfortable with technology, the U.S. military is a playground for the most expensive, bleeding-edge technology on the planet. A fellow soldier, and good friend of mine, left the military to work for DARPA, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency. I asked him what he did there and what he said continues to capture my imagination to this day: “Wes, all I can say is that Star Wars isn’t just a movie.” Indeed, America’s newest military branch, the Space Force, has some pretty sci-fi jobs.
Finally, with so many in Gen Z worried about healthcare, homeownership, and finances in an age of inflation, the military is an amazing head start that allows young people to build their credit while benefiting from free housing and food allowances.
Not to mention the military’s single greatest benefit of all, the Post 9/11 GI Bill.
When I tell my students that I have a Bachelor’s, an MBA, and I’m working on a terminal degree, all without a single penny out of pocket, young people are both shocked and envious. I feel bad for the student debt situation in America right now, but I can’t relate. I got free college for simply showing up and doing my job with honor.
What happens if we screw this up?
The Pentagon has been investing heavily in automation, crew-less ships, drones, and robot weapon systems. But this investment in technology doesn’t mean the military needs fewer personnel.
Quite the opposite.
The most technologically advanced military in the world needs maintainers, coders, technicians, and infantry.
Yes, infantry. Ultimately, a human must hold the ground; at least until Congress votes to give the robot weapon systems the ability to make the kill-decision ala Skynet.
If we don’t turn this around soon, I see two things happening:
First, the draft will make a comeback
Want to scare a kid worse than Annabelle Creation? Tell him that he must register for the selective service when he turns 18.
America’s post-war reaction to the end of Vietnam gave birth to the all-volunteer force in 1973 and killed the draft.
The idea of an all-volunteer force has the overwhelming support of most Americans and military leaders. After all, I don’t want the person that’s fighting next to me to not want to be there.
“Trust” in combat is a life-or-death proposition.
Nobody wants the return of conscription. But if a major war kicks off and Uncle Sam doesn’t have the warm bodies that he needs to keep the peace, the draft will return, along with all the social unrest that comes along with it.
Second, the only young people who join the military will be people who come from military families
This, in turn, creates military dynasties and a self-contained “warrior-class” in our society. Even today, there is an ever-shrinking percentage of Americans – a growing warrior class – who must carry the burden of our country’s ongoing Global War on Terror and new pivot to Russia and China.
In many cases, servicemembers serve because a member of their family served. It’s typical to meet servicemembers whose military heritage goes back for generations.
But shouldn’t an entire nation bear the burden of its government’s foreign policy? Instead, there is now a sub-culture of warriors that, despite high public approval ratings, the general population understands less and less.
This makes the military-civilian divide even more perilous.
We need more data to understand why young people aren’t interested in the military
We need to have an honest conversation about military service with today’s young people, specifically the benefits and the dangers of service.
In fact, I challenge you to have a conversation with a young person in your family and ask them what their thoughts are about military service. I’m curious what their response will be.
I never did turn into Arnold Schwarzenegger, say cheesy catchphrases, or shoot any weapons from the hip. But joining the military was the single best decision of my life.
It has had benefits that I am still realizing today: Composure under pressure, habitual goal orientation, integrity, leadership, diversity, and inclusion… I could go on.
As for the Pentagon and their $3.1bn recruiting budget, it might just be time to bring back the muscle-bound action heroes of the ‘80s to influence today’s youth. Or, better yet, communicate clearly the benefits of service to young people.
Whether from a national security perspective or a cultural one, our nation can’t afford an entire generation opting out of military service.
The opinions and comments stated in the following article, and views expressed by any contributor to AMU Edge, do not represent the views of American Military University, American Public University System, its management, or employees.