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What's behind Gen Z and the US military recruitment crisis?

A Gen Z Marine and a retired Navy captain talk about the military's recruiting crisis and the changes it needs to appeal to the next generation.
What's behind Gen-Z and the US military recruitment crisis?
Posted at 1:22 PM, Feb 25, 2024

The phrase "rally the troops" is proving to be easier said than done when it comes to America's Generation Z.

"We are competing in one of the toughest recruiting landscapes that I've seen in over 33 years of service. This recruiting crisis certainly did not appear overnight and cannot be repaired overnight," Major General Johnny K. Davis of the United States Army said during a Senate Armed Services subcommittee hearing in December.

For months, the United States military has been coming to terms with a recruiting crisis of historic proportions. In the 2023 fiscal year, the Department of Defense says the U.S. military missed its goal by about 41,000 recruits—a major hit for the military that has been an all-volunteer force since 1973. So, where's the disconnect between the U.S. military and Generation Z?

"I kept hearing about this intense recruiting crisis, and we knew the military was struggling with our generation," Matthew Weiss, a 2nd lieutenant in the United States Marine Corps, said.

Weiss is the author of the book "We Don't Want YOU, Uncle Sam: Examining the Military Recruiting Crisis with Generation Z." A quick scroll through social media and it's clear to see that Gen Z has some serious reservations about military service, which has prompted some to even joke about the idea of it.

"We're much more critical of our nation and our existence, right? Gen Z values trust and transparency. We're so used to online fake ads, we can spot something fake in a second. And this is one of the messages to military recruiters, is that trust and transparency is key with Gen Z. You have to be truthful," said Weiss.

Weiss says gaining that trust won't be easy, but that doesn't mean the gap can't be bridged.

"So, I think the biggest thing is that, what is Gen Z looking for? What is the value proposition of the military? We, by statistics, are the most depressed and anxious generation in a long time. Maybe it's social media. Maybe that's the time that we grew up in. But we're looking for connection," Weiss said.

But Weiss says the military will have to be more competitive with its recruiting strategies.

"We're losing a lot of people to, frankly, corporate America. Right? Just typical jobs," Weiss said. "So that's really where we're trying to understand. Okay, what can we do to make the military more appealing to nontraditional military people, to people that have jobs that are similar to also those that exist in the corporate world?"

Starting with its messaging.

"If it can be done in a disorganized fashion to keep people out of the military, or maybe indirectly keep people out of the military because they think it's not for them, our government can do it in a much similar fashion to instill positive messaging," Armen Kurdian said.

Kurdian is a retired U.S. Navy captain. He says Gen Z needs to know that they are not only wanted but that their skillsets and perspectives are valued.

"This is when your country absolutely requires your intelligence, your motivation, your qualities as an individual, as a young man or woman, to come and serve your country and understand that sense of duty, and then in turn, such as myself, to then pass those legacy traits down to the next generation," Kurdian said.

He warns, though, that the military should tread with caution on some of the ideas that have been tossed around as solutions to this crisis.

"Let's just lower the standards and just make it easier to pass and easier to get in. And that is the absolute worst thing that you can possibly do," Kurdian said. "It ends up being quantity over quality."

Ultimately, both Weiss and Kurdian say we have no choice but to get this recruiting crisis addressed soon.

"We're in a peace time now. We know we can very well go into a hot fighting conflict very soon, and it's important to support those young community members, both that are in, but also those more so that are making the decision on the brink. And send your best. We need the best leaders possible. That's really the goal," Weiss said.

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