For 50 Years, Recruiting a Volunteer Military Was Salesmanship. Now, Few Are Buying.


'They Can Smell B.S. Better Than Previous Generations'

In the past few years, the military has been tweaking—and tweaking again—its pitch to would-be Gen Z volunteers: recruiting in more progressive, Northern cities; creating memes; increasing enlistment bonuses; and launching esports teams.

"[T]his is a generation of kids who's been marketed to their entire lives, tied to the fact that they've been on screens, so they can kind of smell B.S. a lot better than previous generations," Kuzminski says. That means fully rethinking the sales pitches that have worked for the last half century.

Rumsfeld's comments during the union debate also haven't stood the test of time: Today, the military relies as much on computer programmers as it does combat infantrymen. Recruiters must explain to a new generation why they should code for the military, rather than a tech company.


Kuzminski sees that as an opportunity.

"You could get a job in Silicon Valley, but you won't be cracking the country's hardest problems like you will in the military," she says. "The shift to the all-volunteer force gave us … the ability to have a professional military. And so I think where the services can really benefit is by showing how this is different from anything else you could possibly do."

Wilkerson agrees. He's been traveling the country, talking to young people about one of the country's hardest problems: climate change.


"[S]tart talking about this," he says. "Start talking about humanitarian assistance and disaster relief and meeting the challenges of climate change. Maybe you will recruit some of these people, because they'll see it differently than they're seeing it right now."

But his climate conversations with young people come up against a problem.

"They're … all eager to be a part of this effort," he says, "but they don't want it to be militarized."

And there's another issue. Something else happened when the economy crumbled 15 years ago.


"One of the things that was a consequence of the 2008 financial crisis was people stopped having kids," Haynie says. Since 1980, the birth rate in America had stayed fairly consistent, but in 2008, it started plummeting. It hasn't recovered.

In the next few years, babies born during the financial crisis will turn 18. Researchers in higher education call 2025 the "demographic cliff." It's the year universities will suddenly have a steep drop-off in freshman students. It's also the age at which people can join the military.

"If you keep the same stats, and you're only able to get 9%, your 9% is going to be of a much-reduced total of eligible recruits," Wilkerson says. "It's not a good picture."

This War Horse feature was reported by Sonner Kehrt, edited by Kelly Kennedy, fact-checked by Jess Rohan, and copy-edited by Mitchell Hansen-Dewar. Headlines are by Abbie Bennett.



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