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

‘We Didn’t Break the Force. We Broke the Families.’

Over the last half century, the economic winds of change have proven a useful indicator for the ebb and flow of recruits. When the economy booms, other opportunities beckon, and the military must work harder to woo would-be enlistees. When the winds shift, those special privileges and benefits—things like free health care and tax-free housing stipends—offer shelter from the storm.

“I was probably one of the few people in the government that was rooting for recession, because when unemployment is high, that helps recruiting,” Martin says.

When the economy tanked in 2008, military recruiting numbers soared. Every service met its quotas and pulled in higher quality recruits.

Fifteen years later, the picture looks different. The job market is tight. Military pay has had difficulty keeping up with inflation, and the defense department’s own research found that nearly a quarter of in recent years. The Gates Commission identified low pay as one of its primary concerns when it started the all-volunteer military, but today, despite substantial military pay raises, potential recruits can earn more at some fast food joints than they can make by enlisting.

“Not only can you make more money flipping burgers,” says , the founder of the D’Aniello Institute for Veterans and Military Families at Syracuse University, “Five Guys promises not to send you to war.”

Recruiters, stymied by obstacles like pandemic school shutdowns and even bans on TikTok, Gen Z’s social media of choice, have struggled to reach young people. And some incentives the military has historically relied on to sell the idea of service are no longer unique. High school graduates don’t need the military to help with financial aid for college—now companies from Starbucks and Chick-Fil-A to Apple and Amazon offer educational assistance.

Over time, the professionalization of the military means the percentage of Americans who serve is an ever-shrinking pool. People who join up are more likely to make it a career than draftees were, and a reduction in the size of the service followed the end of the Cold War. In 1980, 18% of American adults were veterans. Today, it’s 7%, with less than half of 1% currently serving in uniform—a tiny fraction of citizens to bear the costs of war.

In Iraq and Afghanistan, the same service members, many of them only part-time reservists and guardsmen, deployed again and again. Family members of people who have served have long been a consistent source of recruits. But fewer families, and fewer veterans themselves, are recommending military service.

“We didn’t break the force necessarily, through 20 years or so, a trillion dollars of war, but we broke the families,” says retired Army Col. . Wilkerson served as Secretary of State ’s chief of staff.

Every branch of the military has faced recruiting challenges in the last several years, and the pool of potential recruits is shrinking. Only about 23% of Americans between the ages of 17 and 24 meet the physical and background requirements to serve. But perhaps more importantly, far fewer want to serve—Defense Department polling has found that 9% of eligible Americans are interested in joining the military.

“[It’s the] lowest it’s ever been since polling started,” Wilkerson says.

Young people report they don’t want to be killed or face the psychological consequences they saw in soldiers on the news as they grew up. But many just don’t think of the military as an option.

“I’m struck by how profoundly disconnected they are from the military service,” Haynie says. “One unintended consequence of the all-volunteer force was to disconnect the costs and consequences of war from society.”

news flash