Finding Common Ground: Millennials and the Military
By: Jaimie Hoskins
With wars ending, the economy improving, and, some believe, a generational shift in how today’s young men and women perceive military service, the U.S. armed forces are confronted with a new set of recruiting challenges. Concerns about the generational shift and how millennials fit in the military were exemplified in an op-ed last summer by Commander Darcy Cunningham, where she questioned the ability of millennials to adapt to the traditional and structured environment of the military. However, the generational differences may not be as big a hurdle as perceived by some. While the desired work environment of Generation Y— which includes work-life balance, greater career flexibility and working hours, and strong, cohesive team environments—has some marked differences from that of Generation X, their preferences actually fit well with military culture. A clearer message targeting this new generation of future leaders is needed to promote military service to millennials.
Meeting millennials’ desires are challenges with which many employers grapple. Some aspects may be easier for the military to meet than corporations and the public sector, even though military service does not perfectly match millennials’ workplace wish list. For example, the military can offer millennials a degree of fluidity in their careers that is difficult for other employers to mirror. Servicemembers are likely to change jobs every two to three years and attain a diverse set of experiences in different environments through deployments and transfers, giving them, perhaps paradoxically, flexibility in their career path. It is also difficult to replicate the cohesive, team environment servicemembers enjoy. It would be nearly impossible for companies to reproduce the tight-knit team environment that exists from the moment a recruit enters basic training.
Many millennials may overlook the alignment of military culture with their workplace preferences because of their preconceptions about what it means to be a servicemember. These preconceptions are in part due to growing up during highly publicized wars that focused the public solely on the combat aspect of service life. Expanding the narrow conception of military service through clearer messaging of aspects that appeal to millennials could help attract young people that might otherwise choose the private sector because of a lack of knowledge about military service. If the military is unable to attract quality personnel from this generation, the force may be negatively impacted at a time when the nature of conflict and declining end strength makes maximizing personnel quality an imperative.