Cultural and demographic changes could make recruiting more difficult over the next generation or two, perhaps even limiting the size of our volunteer military forces.
Urbanization and cultural change
The US military recruits most effectively from a relatively small and shrinking fraction of the US population. This has ominous implications for the future. Just as our imperial ambitions might exceed our financial resources, they may also exceed our manpower — our ability to voluntarily recruit legions, able to fight foreign wars — a generation or two from now.
“Army Recruiting and the Civil-Military Gap“, Matthew J. Morgan, Parameters (Summer 2001)
Despite the public confidence in the military institution, however, there appears to be a deficit of social capital to support the armed forces. One reason for this may be a declining civic participation among Americans generally. As Andrew Bacevich has written, “In a society in which half of the eligible voters did not even bother to show up at the polls in the  presidential election, the notion of an obligation to participate in the country’s defense has become an anachronism, an oddity from another time.” James Kitfield has referred to a “nearly unbridgeable cultural divide” between American society in general and the US military.
… Dramatic sociopolitical changes dating to the end of World War II (increased hedonism, greater personal expression, opposition to the military lifestyle, resistance to authority, and increased moral criticism), started the decline of mass armies in Western industrial nations, and over the past 30 years the process has become increasingly apparent. The end of conscription in most of the West is a response to these pressures. This offers an alternative explanation to the relevancy of the civil-military rift to recruiting: a decline in the acceptance of military authority, which is a factor frequently associated with youth attitudes against military service.
In addition to changes in attitudes toward authority, changing political beliefs also are affecting the military’s ability to attract new personnel. William Mayer’s work has shown that a strong case can be made that there has been a trend toward more liberal positions on most social values. American society may be more liberal and individualistic now than when Huntington’s theory of objective civilian control was first formulated in The Soldier and the State. This shift may have special significance for the civil-military gap, because while a plurality of civilian leaders are classified as liberals, only a small fraction of military officers are in that category. A 1998-99 study of opinions across the armed services even found that military dislike for then-President Clinton was not a significant factor in these results. Even if the
“studies had ended with the survey in early 1992, when George Bush [senior] was in the White House and a Clinton presidency seemed a very improbable long shot . . . the primary trends described here would already have been in place.”
On a more fundamental level, basic assumptions and values are influencing the propensity for military service. William Bennett has documented a “palpable culture decline” and an actual shift in the public’s beliefs, attitudes, and priorities over the past decades. This shift in popular values might affect the civil-military gap and military recruiting. For instance, a growing affinity for free will and individual expression damages both the ability of citizens to understand the military culture and the likelihood that they would become a part of it. Research has shown that young Americans who expect to serve in the military place a lower priority on personal freedom than do their peers. As more and more Americans place a higher priority on personal freedom, fewer expect to find themselves in uniformed service.
Youth attitudes are shifting to take them further from the military perspective. Interviews with youths on the subject revealed several characterizations. “They don’t like to be told what to do.” “Most teenagers don’t want to commit to anything.” Teens “don’t like getting up early.” Such attitudes don’t comport well with a military career.
… In addition to physical and intellectual separation, the modern force is not demographically representative of the population at large. John Lehman argues that “we have created a separate military caste.” He points out that while most American community leaders have had military experience, few of their children have. Exacerbating the situation is the fact that cadets and midshipman who are children of career military parents are present in record numbers at the service academies.
There is significance in these trends. An insulated military has reduced visibility in the civilian population, and a relatively invisible military is going to engender little support and understanding for its budgetary and recruitment needs in a population that expects lower expenditures on the military in peacetime.
The aging of America
The combination of lower fertility rates (fewer women having children, women having fewer children) will probably make recruiting more difficult in the future. There are many excellent reports examining this topic; here are links to a few of them.
Although written by an advocacy organization, the author makes a strong case that an aging America does not prevent America from fielding armed forces like those of WWII or the Cold War.
The armed forces’ recruitment success rate ([number of new recruits]/[size of the recruitment niche]) has fallen from 2.5 ‰ of the recruitment niche between 1998 and 2000 to 1.6 ‰ in 2001 and 2002. This corresponds to a level of recruitment in the first three years of around 20 thousand people, compared with only 10 thousand in the recruitment campaigns carried out in 2001 and 2002.
If we assume that the armed forces are at best capable of maintaining a recruitment success rate of 1.6 ‰ of their total recruitment niche in the coming years, the total number of new recruits would decrease for each year as a result of Spain’s negative demographic development. The yearly intake would approach 8.000 by 2010, compared with 10.690 in 2002. By 2020 the number would be down further to 7.500. If nothing drastic happens with the number of recruits leaving the armed forces each year, the result of these developments would be a very significant reduction in the numerical strength of the armed forces.
However, it seems unlikely that the proportion of people leaving the army should change in any dramatic way. While the recruitment success rate has been on the decline, the ratio of soldiers leaving the armed forces each year has increased from 7 % in 1998 to 15 % in 2001 and 2002. Thus, if the current recruitment success rate should stabilize at 1.6 ‰ and the current rate at which soldiers leave the armed forces stabilize at 15%, the numerical strength of the Spanish armed forces should be more or less programmed to decrease by 1.000 soldiers per year for the foreseeable future. That is, by 2010 the numerical strength of the armed forces would approach 62.000 men and by 2020 it would be merely 52.000 soldiers.
Needless to say, a reduction of this importance could jeopardize the whole project of professionalizing the armed forces.
I strongly recommend the following report, perhaps the best of any listed here.
This article will attempt to project current demographic trends in the United States and abroad, along with several related determinants, a substantial distance into the future, so as to explore some possibly surprising implications for the recruitment of armed forces. The most important of these demographic factors will be the “graying” of the population, in America and all the advanced industrialized countries, as lower birthrates and longer life-spans project that a larger proportion of the total population will be above what was viewed, until recently, as the normal age for retirement.
In many of the advanced countries, the total of younger people will actually decline as an absolute number. In the United States and in several other advanced countries, this total will not absolutely decrease, but it will certainly decline as a percentage of the overall population. Other important demographic trends will include the worldwide shift of population to urban areas, and the continued high birthrates in many underdeveloped countries, with a bias in some areas toward preventing the birth or survival of female children.
Two magisterial studies of military recruiting by the National Academies (of Sciences)
Valuable and comprehensive research, foundational to any solutions.
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Previous posts on this topic
- The Army’s greatest crisis
- The Army is losing good people. That is only a symptom of a more serious problem.
- An Army near the breaking point, chapter 3