How to solve the US military’s recruitment crisis with Generation Z.
By Matthew Weiss
During my time as a student at Penn I had the unique opportunity to chair the Dean of Admissions Advisory Board. This fabulous experience reinforced many of the lessons I was learning in Wharton classrooms—and served as a particularly vivid demonstration of the advantages enjoyed by an institution whose strategic branding flows directly from a clear value proposition. Suffice it to say that although Penn competes with a select few other colleges and universities, we certainly do not have a recruitment problem. But four years after graduating, I am now in an organization that faces the exact opposite situation. The all-volunteer United States military is struggling tremendously to attract members of Generation Z.
As Senator Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY), pointed out last year at a hearing of the Senate Committee on Armed Services, “By the end of 2022, the active US military will be at its smallest size since the creation of the all-volunteer force.” And when that fiscal year closed, the Army had missed its recruiting goal by roughly 15,000. Military recruiting has seen ebbs and flows, but never before has it missed its goals year after year by such large amounts.
This crisis has multiple causes, ranging from gaps in knowledge to deficits in trust. During the Second World War, virtually every American knew someone who served. More recently, a shrinking population of veterans means that many fewer Zoomers (another moniker for Generation Z, which comprises people born between 1997 and 2012) interact with men and women in uniform. On the whole, Gen Z simply isn’t aware of the multitude of paths that the military may offer them. Meanwhile, our cohort has grown up against the backdrop of wars in Iraq and Afghanistan that have raged on for the entirety of our lives. We weren’t around for the patriotic surge sparked by the September 11 attacks, but have instead witnessed many vets struggle with PTSD, get hamstrung by the VA bureaucracy, and even go so far as to discourage their children from enlisting. Although trust in the military is still high compared to other US institutions, the fact remains that it is at an all-time low. So it’s no surprise that members of Gen Z struggle to view themselves in uniform. It’s hard for an 18-year-old who spent a year in COVID lockdown to contemplate a life in a cramped bootcamp barracks patrolled by screaming drill instructors.
As many of my Penn peers approach pivot points between first and second jobs, the military seems like the last place any of them would end up. Yet the time is ripe to reconceive military recruitment in a way that can benefit both Gen Z and our national security. And that starts with recognizing that although the Armed Forces have traditionally recruited from a young age pool, the most significant opportunity to attract Zoomers may still be years away.
There are sound reasons why men between 18 and 24 have long been the primary source of active duty soldiers. But as the oldest Zoomers turn 26, the military stands to benefit from a concerted effort to attract this cohort for at least another 15 years. As Gen Z continues to age, their crucial skills will be ever more valuable to the armed forces. Zoomers, by way of their technological upbringing, bring unique capabilities that the military desperately needs. As just one example, a Gen Z supply chain analyst with SQL and computer training can manage dramatically more supply convoys than traditional troops did with pen and paper checklists in the days of yore. Additionally, Zoomers have been raised with a teamwork and collaborative mindset that is crucial in diverse military teams. As they gain some work experience, their skills will sharpen and align with the complex challenges that hyper-technological warfare bring.
At the same time, there’s every reason to believe that Gen Z will have to be more flexible and adaptable, for a much longer portion of their working lives, than was required of any preceding cohort. They will need to constantly acquire new professional skills to remain relevant. The military can offer the reskilling program that Zoomers are likely to need in the future—and may already need now.
Many Zoomers realize that jobs are changing so fast that in just a few years, a previously qualified candidate will need to be retrained on the latest methods, practices, or tools. This is especially true for technical, computer-related jobs but is also increasingly common in the trades sector. The most profound way that the military can capitalize on this need for later-in-life skills is to become the best reskilling program in the world. Young—and not-so-young—people in the midst of job or career transitions will have a massive need for this. Whole cohorts of workers will have to get “re-educated, reskilled, and upskilled”—as far-sighted military analysts increasingly realize—to keep up with machines, artificial intelligence, and whatever is coming next that we can’t possibly predict.
The military has long played a role in driving American prosperity and innovation. From the enormous economic dividends of the GI Bill’s college-education provisions to DARPA’s creation of the internet, the US has frequently relied on its military to propel it into more prosperous times. A concerted focus on Gen Z holds a similar promise.
The military must also do a better job of advertising itself to the everyday civilian. Instead of focusing on the exciting but less common infantryman running with a rifle, it should highlight the many support jobs that are required in our modern force—where we struggle to recruit against the likes of Amazon or UPS. By using civilian online platforms like Udemy, Coursera, and Pluralsight, the military can offer civilians reskilling courses. Jobs in fields like procurement and logistics, which are crucial functions in the military, now so closely match the civilian sector that there is no need to hoard all the Department of Defense knowledge in military-only schoolhouses. Making MOOCS (massive open online courses) available to civilians where all the case studies and readings revolve around military matters would enable civilians to acquire skills like military service members. Moreover, it would show people interested in those particular fields that they can have a similar life in the military while enjoying some of the other benefits of service.
By educating themselves in military approaches to common functional trades like supply, logistics, and maintenance, Americans will be increasing their productivity and creating a more skilled labor pool for the Department of Defense to recruit from. Even leadership courses are an option. Given the frequent commercial success of military leadership books, there’s every reason to think that making unclassified DoD leadership lectures and schooling available would likely be a massive hit. There is a well of untapped knowledge currently hiding behind the military-civilian divide. Letting that flow outward would bring significant gains to the entire population and the recruiting effort.
Some more senior workers (Penn graduates very much among them) may be uniquely qualified to enter at higher ranks and pay grades if they have this corresponding civilian sector experience. While the military has many civilian employees, there are certain tactical authorities and jobs that require one to be in uniform to execute. Outsourcing simply isn’t an option in certain areas. Such initiatives, dubbed lateral entry, often cause a stir among traditionalists, but it is counterproductive to require a highly qualified technical expert to undergo boot camp at age 30; that prospect will only repel qualified candidates. Instead, there should be increased lateral-entry expert contracts to get more of them in uniform. The recent hit film Oppenheimer showed how civilian scientists came to the military’s aid in a time of national need. Perhaps the next conflict will see economists and social theorists do the same.
When I personally went through the military recruitment process, I was shocked by how different it was from college admissions. The months spent waiting for a one-hour medical examination were one thing, but the slow and byzantine ways of paperwork to sign with recruiters was outrageous. I couldn’t help but think back to my time at Penn and juxtapose the two processes and outcomes. In truth, I believe the military simply needs to reestablish its value proposition in the minds of American youth. Although the days of patriotic fervor that saw millions enlist may be a thing of the past, the modern-day military can still be a great workplace for many members of my generation. There is much to say for this mission-driven work, from the sense of common purpose to the deep bonds that form between servicemembers who are united in its pursuit. For an anxious, depressed, and stressed Gen Z, the world’s greatest physical social network may be the great life choice many are searching for but don’t know where to find.
Matthew Weiss W’20 WG’21 is a second lieutenant intelligence officer in the United States Marine Corps who previously worked in mergers and acquisitions at a defense technology company. He is the author of We Don’t Want You, Uncle Sam: Examining the Military Recruiting Crisis with Generation Z, from which this essay is adapted.