The Propensity to Serve in the Armed Forces: An Examination into the Factors Associated with Military Propensity During the Post-9/11 Era

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The end of military conscription and the rise of the All-Volunteer Force (AVF) in 1973 forced the armed forces to compete in the civilian labor market with other employers and colleges for desirable young workers. As a consequence, the Department of Defense and the individual services began large-scale programs of market research designed to monitor the quantity and quality of personnel in the civilian labor force who might be eligible and inclined to volunteer for military service. One element of these research programs has been microdata analysis based upon large-scale longitudinal surveys of America’s youth. The University of Michigan’s Monitoring the Future (MTF) project is one particular program that has been surveying high school seniors since 1975 and tracking their subsequent life-course trajectories up to the age of thirty-five. Although originally intended for use as a drug and alcohol use study, there are numerous demographic and attitudinal questions on various forms of the MTF study that have been previously used by scholars and military practitioners to describe trends and predict factors associated with the propensity to serve in the armed forces. However, scholars have not extended this research since 9/11. My research bridges this gap in knowledge by employing cross-sectional data from MTF to examine the various macro-social and social-psychological factors associated with military propensity during the post-9/11 era (2002-2013)- a period marked by sustained war in Afghanistan and Iraq. At the macro-social level, I find that the propensity to serve in the military is negatively related to public support for war and U.S. casualties, but is positively related to a rise in unemployment. Black youth continue to have a higher propensity to serve compared to Hispanic and white youth, although their propensity is relatively lower compared to years prior to 9/11. Further, the gap in propensity between race and ethnic groups disappears after controlling for socioeconomic factors. Significant attitudinal differences are observed between youth with and without propensity and between racial and ethic groups who have the propensity to serve. Youth with propensity are more likely to affiliate with the Republican Party and to possess a conservative political ideology. Youth with propensity are more likely to have greater institutional orientations toward work, although occupational orientations also exist among youth with propensity during the post-9/11 era. Youth with propensity are likely to possess more traditional attitudes toward gender roles and are no less egalitarian in their attitudes toward race relations compared to youth without propensity. Women continue to have lower propensity than men, but women’s overall propensity levels do not significantly decrease during the post-9/11 era compared to years earlier. Findings have important implications for life course studies of the post-9/11 era, recruitment and retention in the military, for research on the integration of women into combat positions, and for research on civil-military relations concerning the nature and extent of a civil-military gap.