Tue. Jun 18th, 2024

Why young people are turning away from military service in record numbers

Tyler Mitchell By Tyler Mitchell Jun11,2024
The Australian Defence Force is . Only 80 per cent of the 69,000 personnel needed to meet future challenges have signed up. The government recently announced recruitment will be opened up to some foreign citizens to try to fill this gap.
Not only is the Australian military failing to achieve planned growth, it is actually shrinking, as defence chief general Angus Campbell told a Senate inquiry in February.
There are two fundamental reasons for the current recruitment impasse. One is economic — low unemployment and a perception of better opportunities, work conditions and future prospects in the private sector.
The other reason is cultural: a declining willingness of gen Z to identify with — and fight to defend — their nation.

Either way, the key to the recruitment crisis lies in understanding the motivations of this generation, the main pool of potential recruits today.

We recently interviewed 19 serving Australian soldiers from a range of demographics (two were gen Z) and across military branches in a study funded by the Australian Defence Force. We wanted to find out what makes gen Z recruits tick, and what the force might do to persuade more of them to serve their country.

Enter the ‘anxious generation’

Researchers study every new generation as a guide to the future, from the baby boomers to generation X (like the authors of this article), and millennials. None is more distinctive than generation Z, or zoomers — people born roughly between 1997 and 2008.
They are the first generation to grow up with smartphones and social media. In his current bestseller, The Anxious Generation, social psychologist Jonathan Haidt outlines the cataclysmal effect: he claims a large increase in depression and anxiety in young people is the direct effect of unsupervised social media use during adolescence.

Zoomers’ mental health is a barrier to service, as US Marine Corps lieutenant Matthew Weiss spells out in his book on gen Z military recruitment.

Army troops at Gallipoli Barracks in Brisbane.

The Australian government is expanding eligibility criteria for joining the Australian Defence Force. Source: AAP / Jono Searle

A military career can be detrimental to psychological wellbeing, as Australia’s Royal Commission into Veteran Suicide has demonstrated. The force’s rigorous mental health entry standards may have reinforced this perception.

The soldiers we spoke to said mental health is an issue for recruitment. On the one hand, they agreed that service is mentally challenging, and that younger soldiers are more psychologically vulnerable. On the other hand, interviewees said the force’s mental health support has been improving. This is a step in the right direction — it may well be that media coverage of veterans’ mental health issues worries Zoomers considering enlistment.

Weiss argues private sector jobs (and money) afford much more online currency than military service. The respondents in our interviews agreed younger recruits were very savvy about pay and conditions.

Waning national pride

But there may be another motivator: as Opposition Defence spokesperson Andrew Hastie recently told the ABC: “People who join the Defence Force don’t just do it for economic reasons, they do it because they love their country.
This means if love of country falls from generation to generation, military recruitment falls too. Weiss suggests in the United States, low patriotism partly explains gen Z’s reluctance to enlist.

Our interviewees said traditional nationalism played only a modest role for enlisting for young people. They thought a lesser sense of obligation and service is one reason. Another is the fact that the black-and-white picture of “my country right or wrong” has been muddied following media coverage of alleged Australian war crimes in Afghanistan.

The evidence confirms waning national pride among young Australians. We analysed publicly available data from the World Values Survey, a wide-ranging poll of people’s values around the globe conducted since 1981.
It shows in 1981, 70.3 per cent of Australians were “very proud” of their nationality. This fell to 60.8 per cent in 2018, the first year to feature gen Z members in the survey. That year, only 41.6 per cent of twentysomethings (including some millennials) were very proud Australians — the lowest proportion of any Australian age group in any year since the survey began.
All else being equal, older adults tend to be more nationalistic, as surveys in different periods and countries show. But the nationalism gap between old and young has opened up further with gen Z.

According to the survey data, in 1981, 69 per cent of Australians in their twenties were willing to fight for their country. This was a slightly greater proportion than the 65 per cent of over-70s. By 2018, this was reversed, with only 44 per cent of Australians in their twenties willing to fight, compared with 59 per cent of over-70s.

The moral imperative

Our interviewees suggested that if nationalist values motivate zoomers, this is only in terms of “doing the right thing”. This offers an alternative opportunity for recruiters: the changing role of the military towards peacekeeping and disaster relief makes defence attractive to those with humanitarian values.
Zoomers fall into this category. Research shows, and our interviewees agreed, that gen Z care about the environment, diversity, equity and inclusion.

This is reflected by their attitudes to work. Zoomers want a calling and not just a career (let alone merely a job). According to our interviewees, young recruits place greater importance on the intrinsic aspects of work, like learning skills, experiencing adventure and challenges.

So how do we boost recruitment?

Our own and other research suggests gen Z is strongly motivated by things that support their own growth and wellbeing, both materially and spiritually, rather than service toward others. Researchers label these “pro-self” motivations.
Zoomers may be hard to recruit, especially given the increasing war for talent, but they have a great deal to offer the military. They may be the most success-orientated among recent generations. They have an unprecedented ability to handle digital technologies that are becoming increasingly important in the military.

The inaugural National Defence Strategy unveiled in April has conceded “the need for a fundamental transformation of defence’s recruitment and retention system”.

Many of the proposals to raise military recruitment in Australia are general. The government recently raised pay and bonuses in the defence force, for example.
Other measures include making the recruitment process easier, making military service an opt-out system, reducing medical requirements, or increasing the maximum recruitment age and galvanising junior military leaders to change outdated traditions that harm recruitment.
Our research suggests building a force that appeals to gen Z’s social values and intrinsic motivations is the way forward. Recruitment strategies need to be tailored.
Robert Hoffmann is a professor of behavioural economics at the University of Tasmania. He receives funding from the Australian Department of Defence.
Maria Teresa Beamond is an assistant professor at RMIT University. She receives funding from the Australian Department of Defence and from the not-for-profit group Australian Women in Security Network.
Tyler Mitchell

By Tyler Mitchell

Tyler is a renowned journalist with years of experience covering a wide range of topics including politics, entertainment, and technology. His insightful analysis and compelling storytelling have made him a trusted source for breaking news and expert commentary.

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