Recruiting the Best: the American Military and the Millennial Generation

As any Chief Executive Officer of a corporation would say, finding and retaining the best talent is key to having a successful enterprise. Talent management requires an investment of both time and money to convince successful, intelligent, and driven employees to choose your enterprise over others. Some do this through incentives—bonuses, fast promotions, education subsidies—and others by creating a place where people want to work.

In Need of Talent

Kyle Bayard, 20, struggles to remain in position during a stationary push-up during physical exercise in the parking lot behind the Army recruiting station in Grandview, MO (

The military is no different. Each service competes with the others for the best candidates in what is becoming an ever-shrinking talent pool. In a 2014 study, the Pentagon found that seven out of ten young people were ineligible for military service because of a variety of factors, including lack of educational requirements or inability to meet the physical fitness demands of the military. This comes at a time when the U.S. military is rebuilding to meet fast-changing future threats in a tough budgetary environment. Finding the best available talent and then retaining good officers, non-commissioned officers, and enlisted personnel therefore becomes even more critical. How can the military maintain its competitive edge against future possible threats, in a financially constrained environment, with a smaller pool of eligible recruits? The answer might just be the Millennial Generation.     

The so-called “Me Generation” gets a lot of bad press. A simple Google search of “Millennial” will bring up keywords such as, lazy, self-obsessed, and narcissistic. None of these are qualities you want in a military servicemember. However, this stereotype, like all stereotypes, fails to paint a full picture. Consider that the majority of servicemembers who have served in Iraq and Afghanistan as company grade officers and below are Millennials. Despite the social media memes questioning whether Millennials would have the guts to hop off a landing craft on Omaha Beach during the 1944 D-Day invasion, Millennials have fought, bled, and died in fierce combat from Fallujah to Marjah. If you take 1982 as the beginning of the Millennial generation, six out of the eleven servicemembers to be awarded the Medal of Honor for operations in Afghanistan have been Millennials. There is no lack of fighting spirit.

As if in response to the epithets lazy and self-obsessed, the Millennial Generation is surprisingly more service-oriented than tropes would suggest. Volunteerism is on the rise amongst Millennials—a 2014 survey noted twenty percent of those under 30 volunteered their time—who are drawn to making their communities better. While civic responsibility such as serving in political office in local communities or taking a greater interest in U.S. history is still lagging amongst Millennials, the military should take note of this desire to serve. Where better to make a difference than in uniform? This drive to serve becomes an even more important factor as financial incentives for military service dwindle.

The Right Generation For the Job

As technology advances, so does warfare. The digital age has changed the way the military operates, from administrative requirements to operational execution. The ability to learn new systems, operate them efficiently, and deploy them quickly will be key to ensuring mission accomplishment. Raised in the digital age, this is something that the Millennial Generation easily understands. This generation is technologically astute and hungry for the latest innovations. Keying in on this desire to be on the forefront of technology may be another way to interest Millennials, whether it be through recruiting for research and development or for operating new systems. Like it or not, the digital age is here to stay, and the U.S. military needs to remain on the forefront of technological innovation.

Some might complain that Millennials make poor employees since their experience they always want to know the “why” and “so what” behind each task. Rather than seeing this as a downside, leaders can exploit this as an opportunity to create a desire to be more involved in the organization, to generate what some might call buy in” This simply means that leaders must issue clear guidance. While obedience has its place in the military, as we seek to be more innovative and adaptive, wouldn’t we be strengthened by a force made up of critical thinkers? And don’t critical thinkers, by definition, need a certain kind of leadership?

There is one last reason to consider how Millennials can be a force multiplier as recruits: they are accustomed to adversity. Considering the popular image of Millennials as over-privileged, you may laugh. However, according to Pew polling, only six out of ten Millennials were raised with both parents, they came of age and entered the job market during the Great Recession, and—on track to being the most educated generation in U.S. history—exited college with a boatload of debt. Yet despite this, they maintain an optimistic view of the future. This is not to say that Millennials dealt with the same trials as the Greatest Generation. The Great Recession was in no way like the Great Depression and the abject poverty it brought to whole swathes of American society. Nor are our current conflicts comparable to the two World Wars of the 20th century. However, economic and family stress does help one deal with the rigors of life in the military, as well as making the military a good option for those seeking relief from economic hardship.

Millennials Are the Military’s Future

Millennials are on track to make up nearly fifty percent of the workforce by 2020. That is to say, they represent the future of the U.S. military. While the military should not change its core character or values to accommodate Millennials, it should recognize their views of the world differ from those of past generations. While Millennials present some new training and leadership challenges (getting them off their phones, for example), they also offer a way for the military to advance into the modern world at the ground level. Connecting with Millennials is imperative for the military as it attempts to recruit the best and brightest. This can be done by emphasizing the military’s role as the ultimate service organization, highlighting its position on the receiving end of new technology, and impressing on Millennials that their innovation and adaption is a valued commodity. By tailoring the message, the military can successfully compete with civilian corporations while building a stronger force for the future.

Angry Staff Officer is an officer in the Army National Guard and a member of the Military Writers Guild. He commissioned as an engineer officer after spending time as an enlisted infantryman. The opinions expressed are his alone, and do not reflect those of the U.S. Army, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. Government. For more from Angry Staff Officer, visit his Wordpress blog site.

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