Home / Defense and security / Articles / Military recruitment is down. Why don’t young Americans want to join?

While the Marine Corps and Space Force — independent branches organized under the Navy and Air Force, respectively — anticipate meeting their 2023 recruitment goals, the military expects to fall short of its goals for the Army, Navy, and Air Force. The Army expects to recruit 55,000 new soldiers in 2023, 10,000 short of its goal. The Air Force also expects a 10,000-person shortfall, and the Navy expects to be 6,000 shy of its goal.

Though the percentage of active duty military members has fluctuated since 2001, it has declined by 39% since 1987, its most recent high.

Who is eligible to join the military?

The Department of Defense developed a method for estimating the number of young adults who would be eligible to join the military. In 2020, its Qualified Military Available study estimated that 23% of Americans ages 17–24 were eligible for military service. (This age group represents 90% of the military’s applicants.) That was a decrease from 2016, when the department estimated that 29% were eligible.

In addition to age and citizenship requirements (some non-citizens can join the military), applicants must meet a set of criteria regarding their health, education, and criminal background.

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What’s keeping young Americans from joining the military?

In the fall of 2022, Joint Advertising Marketing Research & Studies (JAMRS), a program run by the US Department of Defense, polled people ages 16-24 about their likelihood to join the military and why or why not. When asked, “In the next few years, how likely is it that you will be serving in the Military?” 2% replied, “Definitely,” and 7% replied, “Probably.”

Conversely, 32% replied “Probably not,” and 58% replied “Definitely Not,” amounting to 90% of young people who are unlikely to consider the military as a career path.

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“One of the biggest challenges we have is just that propensity to serve," said Stephanie Miller, the deputy assistant secretary of defense for military personnel policy, at the Association of the United States Army’s annual meeting in 2022.

On the same topic, New York Senator Kirsten Gillibrand said “We know that America's youth have a historically low level of interest in military service and enjoy a highly favorable job market, which makes it even more difficult to recruit and retain highly skilled personnel” at the Senate Armed Services Hearing on the Recruiting and Retention Efforts in the Defense Department in September of 2022.

Pay, future educational opportunities, and travel are the top three reasons people say they would join the military, according to the OPA survey.

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Office of People Analytics Spring 2022 Propensity Update
Last updated
February 23, 2023
Qualified Military Available Study
Last updated
Last updated
June 20, 2023