Why teens balk at joining military
Inside the halls of Spring Valley High School, Trey Sims sums up why many of today's youths don't want to join the military: It's the authority thing. "They don't like to be told what to do," the high school junior says. "They want to be more independent, do stuff themselves."Skip to next paragraph
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Other students waiting for appointments with a guidance counselor echo those sentiments. Senior Francisca Ladd, who plans to enlist in the Army, says that "most teenagers don't want to commit to anything." Senior Jim Wines, the son of a drill sergeant, gives the alarm-clock argument: "They don't like getting up early."
Across the United States - and even in the deeply patriotic South - the armed forces are losing their luster as a career option for many of America's youths.
The falloff in new recruits is presenting the military with one of the biggest manpower problems in 25 years. Behind the dearth is a tale of the changing priorities of so-called "Generation Y," a booming peace-time economy, and a distancing of young Americans from the Armed Forces.
Though Spring Valley is only about five miles from Fort Jackson, the Army's biggest basic training site, it might as well be in another time zone.
"I'm not having nearly as many kids ask me about the military as an option," says Phil Grubbs, Spring Valley's director of guidance and a lieutenant colonel in the Army National Guard.
Teenagers and young adults are "not interested in politics or political affairs, not interested in what's going on in the larger world, and surprisingly open to alternative lifestyles," says John Scott Wilson, a history professor and popular culture authority at the University of South Carolina.
That does not necessarily mean today's youth are less patriotic or civic-minded, Wilson says. The military is simply not at the top of their career interests.
The numbers tell the story: Last year, the Navy missed its year-end recruiting goal by nearly 7,000.
The hard numbers
This year, the Army is estimating it could fall short of its yearly goal by 6,000 to 10,000. And the Air Force, which seldom has to scramble to fill its ranks, will begin airing paid TV ads for the first time ever next month.
Among the services, only the smaller, elite Marine Corps isn't struggling on the recruiting trail. Everywhere else, the numbers are troubling for Pentagon brass.
When you factor in the increased attrition of soldiers who don't complete their first enlistment - in the Army the number hit 40 percent last year - it's become clear that the services are not connecting with large segments of American youth.
"We're going to have to have some kind of paradigm shift to keep the military an attractive option," says Donna Shealy, guidance coordinator for a Columbia school district.
"In the past, the military has been a wonderful avenue for young folks to have an equal playing field, no matter their status or background," she says. "Students aren't feeling that because the economy is so good and diversity is more accepted."
The economy is indeed a factor. Last year, when national unemployment dipped below 4.5 percent, it marked an unprecedented threat to the nation's 25-year-old all-volunteer force.