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Journal Issue: Transition to Adulthood Volume 20 Number 1 Spring 2010

The Military and the Transition to Adulthood
Ryan Kelty Meredith Kleykamp David R. Segal

Who Serves in the Volunteer Military?

During the era of America's conscripted military, those who served were (theoretically) a representative sample of the country's age-eligible, male youth. While there were constraints on who could serve historically, there was always a sense that those who served reflected the society from which they came. The current all-volunteer force relies on market dynamics in conjunction with individuals' call to service to fill its ranks. Several social-structural characteristics are important in determining not only who serves, but the experiences they have while in service. In particular, the characteristics of age, gender, race and ethnicity, sexual orientation, and social class are important in determining who enlists, what they do, and the experiences they have—all of which influence one's transition to adulthood in the military context.

Because of its hierarchical nature, its reliance on up-or-out promotion systems with little to no lateral entry, and its demands for physical fitness, military service is often a mission for the young. The age composition of the nation's armed force is far different from that of the civilian labor force. Across all military services, nearly 50 percent of the force is between seventeen and twenty-four years old, as shown in figure 1. The age distribution of men and women in the force is similar, but there is an obvious gender disparity. Although 50 percent of both the men and women serving are under twenty-five, among all service members under twenty-five, roughly 15 percent are women.

This overall portrait of the age distribution obscures differences across the individual services, most notably the Marine Corps' emphasis on maintaining a young, non-career force.3 As figure 1 also shows, there are slightly more women at the younger ages, and more men at older ages, largely because of gender differences in retention: women leave the military at earlier ages than men, perhaps for family reasons (an issue discussed in greater detail below).

The rigorous and all-encompassing military socialization and training process is not uniquely aimed at young adults, but it is well suited to facilitate economic independence from parents and to promote responsible membership in intimate relationships and communities. The military emphasizes personal responsibility, health, constant training and self-improvement, and community and civic engagement—all key components of a successful transition to adulthood—and it holds all members to the same codes of conduct. Personal growth thus takes place in a highly structured setting. Within that setting, service members are also secure in knowing that their basic material needs are provided—reasonable wages, generous in-kind transfers, free medical care, housing, educational benefits, and training that may be highly transferable to civilian work.

Although about half of the men and women in the military are between seventeen and twenty-four years of age, only a small fraction of U.S. young adults in that age range has any military experience. Table 1 shows the percentage of the population with military experience, by age and gender. Although men serve at higher rates than women, among both men and women few aged seventeen to twenty-four have either current or past military experience. Higher rates among older men largely reflect higher service rates among older cohorts, who were at risk of being drafted into the military. Military experience, rare among today's young adults, was more common in earlier generations.

Military service has historically been a masculine role, though the share of young women serving in the armed forces has risen significantly since the advent of the all-volunteer force. Legal reforms in 1967, and more recent legal reforms associated with the initiation of the all-volunteer force, lifted official ceilings on women's service (once capped at 2 percent of the force).4 In 1973, at the birth of the volunteer force, women made up 1.6 percent of active duty personnel; by 2005, that share had grown to some 15 percent.5 By September 2008, 20 percent of enlisted personnel and officers in the Air Force were women. The Navy and Army had 15 percent and 14 percent, respectively; the Marine Corps had a significantly smaller share of women—only 6 percent.6

Over the past twenty years, women in uniform have increasingly chosen military service as their adult occupation. Their representation in the senior enlisted and officer ranks has grown and now accounts for nearly 12 percent of senior enlisted personnel and officers in all services except the Marine Corps, which is much lower at just over 3 percent.7

The military is the only major social institution in the nation that may legally discriminate in employment on the basis of gender. By Army regulation, women may serve "in any… specialty or position except those in battalion size or smaller units which are assigned a primary mission to engage in direct ground combat or which collocate routinely with units assigned a direct ground combat mission."8 Women have access to more than 90 percent of the occupations in the Army, but are excluded from a number of occupational fields (for example, infantry, armor, special forces), which amount to a third of all Army jobs.9

The Navy restricts women from serving aboard submarines, on some small combat-oriented ships, and in support positions with Marine Corps ground combat units.10 As with the Army, more than 90 percent of Navy positions are open to women.11 The ability to provide separate berthing on ships by gender affects the number of women in the fleet; typically, ships have berthing to accommodate women as 20 percent of the crew.12 In the Marine Corps, more than 90 percent of occupations are open to women—again with exclusions for direct combat-related occupations. However, because the Marines are highly combat-focused, the exclusion of females in these occupations means women are ineligible to serve in 38 percent of all Marine Corps jobs.13 The Air Force is the least restrictive, with 99 percent of occupational specialties and positions open to women.14

Although, as suggested by many of the articles in this volume, women appear to be making more successful transitions to adulthood in many areas than men, the military remains one area where structural and cultural impediments to their advancement remain. The differential treatment of military women at the institutional and interpersonal level affects their transitions to adulthood and the pursuit of military careers in several important ways. First, the exclusions on occupational specialty limit the number of women who can serve and preclude female officers and enlisted personnel from the most prestigious units and jobs in the military. These limits affect service entry and both the rate and height of their ascent in the organization should they choose to remain for a career.15

Second, the hyper-masculine culture of the military devalues feminine qualities and characteristics.16 This devaluation often leads to both physical and symbolic violence against women, a significant source of motivation for women's leaving military service.17 Experiences of harassment have led to increased turnover among female service members.18 Even within the officer corps, sexual harassment has been identified as a significant motivation for separating from service, though incidences of reported sexual harassment are lower among female officers than among female enlisted personnel.19 This harassment can escalate to more serious sexual assault, a point we take up later.

Gender as social capital within the military is expressed in assumptions about and direct challenges to women. For example, having particular qualifications (badges and tabs) readily visible on one's uniform is limiting for women, who have fewer opportunities for earning such awards or distinctions. Women have to resort to "pulling rank" more than men to gain compliance from subordinates.20 Women endure numerous kinds of "tests" (for example, sabotage, constant scrutiny, and indirect threats) that men do not necessarily experience to prove they are capable of serving in the military. Differential treatment of women may be due to the possible Catch-22 of being accused of discrimination on the one hand or being insensitive to real differences in the needs or limitations of women on the other.21 The result, however, is that different standards can be perceived as inequitable, leading to negative social and professional consequences for female service members. Although career military service is not for everyone, many choose it, and these systematic barriers facing women limit or impede their ability to achieve their military career goals. Because retirement with benefits is possible only after twenty years of service (unless one is injured in the line of duty), the additional stressors placed on women in the military may cause them to leave the service prematurely, with real consequences to the development of their own human capital through schooling, training, and leadership experience and also through potential forfeiture of benefits tied to career service.

Third, mentorship is important in fostering maturation of young professionals. The significant increase in more senior women in both the officer corps and enlisted ranks provides many more role models and mentors to share important social and cultural experiences. Despite persistent challenges, young female service members today have a more supportive and positive environment in the military than at any time in our nation's history. On balance, the challenges mean that more women than men who enter the service will leave after a short period of service; for these women, their service functions as a transition into other adult occupational, familial, and educational roles rather than a transition to a military career. As we will show, these choices vary by race and ethnicity as well as gender.

Race and Ethnicity
During the debates on the end of conscription, critics of the volunteer force concept argued that a force recruited through labor market dynamics would place the burden of service disproportionately on the shoulders of economically disadvantaged groups: the poor and racial and ethnic minorities.22

The architects of the volunteer force had expected that the end of conscription would not affect the racial composition of the force. However, African American participation in the military increased dramatically during the 1970s and remained around 22 percent from 1980 through 2001. Since the advent of the war on terror, African American participation has declined, dipping below 20 percent in 2006 for the first time in more than a quarter of a century. By contrast, African American participation in the civilian labor force since the late 1970s has remained constant between 11 and 13 percent.23 Through the 1990s, including the first Persian Gulf War, the military was consistently able to draw highly capable African American youth. Research on high school graduates shows that blacks are more likely to enlist than whites and that blacks see the military as a viable alternative to the civilian labor force. Highly qualified black youths may prefer the immediate benefits of the military, including its more rigorous meritocratic structure relative to civilian employment options, to advanced education and civilian labor force participation.24 During the all-volunteer force era, African Americans have consistently been over-represented in the military compared with their presence in the civilian labor force, but that over-representation has been decreasing since the United States began military operations in Afghanistan and Iraq. Nonetheless, for many young African Americans, joining the military is a transition to an adult military role, rather than a step taken before assuming alternative adult roles.

Hispanic participation in the military has risen sharply since the early 1990s. From the inception of the all-volunteer force until 1994, Hispanics made up less than 6 percent of military personnel. Since the late 1980s, Hispanics have increased their share of the military; by 2006, nearly 13 percent of the military identified as Hispanic, more than double the share in 1991.25 In contrast to African American trends, Hispanic participation in the military mirrors an increase in civilian labor force participation during this time period. When adjusted for those who qualify for military service on the basis of education, Hispanics are actually slightly over-represented in the military compared with the civilian labor force. Latinos are most likely to enlist in the Marine Corps and least likely to enlist in the Air Force, whereas the Army has the highest share of African American service members and the Marine Corps the lowest.26 This difference among branches is consequential for whether military service represents a transition to a military career, or a step toward alternative careers. The Marine Corps has the smallest career force; the Air Force, the largest. The concentration of Hispanics in the former suggests that service will represent a transition to alternate adult roles for young Hispanic men and women.

Immigrants are allowed to serve in the armed forces, and more than 65,000 (both non-citizens and naturalized citizens) do; 11,000 of them are women.27 Immigrants make up roughly 5 percent of the active duty force. Serving in the military makes immigrants eligible for expedited citizenship, and since 2001 more than 37,000 have become citizens.28 Some lawmakers have suggested military service as a path to gaining legal status, and the Development, Relief, and Education for Alien Minors (DREAM) Act introduced in Congress in March 2009 contains provisions allowing illegal immigrants who arrived in the United States before age sixteen a path to citizenship in exchange for two years of military service.29 Recently, the military has opened opportunities for immigrants on short-term visas, who earlier were not eligible without legal permanent resident status.30

Race and gender intersect in important ways in the military. African Americans generally are over-represented, but African American women are more over-represented than men by nearly a 2:1 margin as a share of enlisted soldiers and by more than 2:1 in both officer and warrant officer ranks.31 Half of the women serving in the military are minority women, with African Americans accounting for 30 percent of all military women.32 Among Hispanic soldiers, men have historically outnumbered women. In 2006, however, Latinas surpassed Latinos in their representation in the military in both the enlisted (11.0 percent men, 12.2 percent women) and officer ranks (4.8 percent men, 5.3 percent women).33

In 2005, blacks and Hispanics composed 19.9 percent and 9.8 percent of the enlisted ranks, respectively, across all branches of service. Their shares in the officer corps were significantly lower (8.7 percent black, 4.8 percent Hispanic),34 but reflect the representation of African Americans among the college graduate population, from which officers are drawn. The number of officers of color has increased since the 1990s.35 Even so, at the highest levels of leadership in the military, racial and ethnic minorities continue to be under-represented. Of the 893 general officers across the four service branches in 2005, only 48 (5.4 percent) were black, and only 11 (1.2 percent) were Hispanic.36

Much of the early criticism of the over-representation of minorities in the military was based on their concentration in the combat arms, where, in a conventional war, they would be over-represented among fatalities and casualties. As recently as the 1980s, African Americans were over-represented in units like the 82nd and 101st Airborne Divisions—among the first units to deploy in wartime. But by 1990, blacks were no longer going disproportionately into combat units.37 They are now under-represented in combat arms, electronic repair, and electrical and mechanical crafts occupations. By contrast, they are disproportionately serving in functional support, administrative, service, and supply specialties. Although combat occupations may be valued in making a military career, experience in support specialties is highly transferable to the civilian labor market. A recent study found that black men in support occupations had a hiring advantage over civilians, whereas those with combat experience had minimal success applying for civilian positions.38 Hispanics more closely resemble whites than they do blacks in their distribution in military specialties. Their highest representation is in the electrical specialty area, followed closely by equal proportions in combat arms and administration. They are more likely than whites to be in medical and dental and other allied health fields, administration, and supply occupations.39

Sexual Orientation
Homosexuals have served in the U.S. military since the Revolutionary War, though they have faced discrimination for much of that time. Gays were prohibited from service from 1950 until January 1993, when President Clinton signed the "Don't Ask, Don't Tell, Don't Pursue" policy on sexual orientation in the military.40 Thus the gay community did not have the same access to service either as an adult role or as a gateway to other roles as did the straight community. Public opinion does not support banning homosexuals from serving openly in the military. Between 58 and 91 percent of people disapprove of the continued ban.41

These shifts in general public opinion are reflected to a lesser degree among military personnel. Military opinions on homosexuals serving openly in uniform have changed dramatically since the early 1990s. Upwards of 40 percent now support such service. Younger service members (both enlisted personnel and officers) offer considerably greater support, suggesting a generation gap in attitudes.42 Even with marked increases in support for homosexuals among those in and around the military, well over a third of service members report being aware of fellow service members being harassed based on sexual orientation.43

From the early 1980s until 1994, the numbers of discharges for homosexual-related reasons fell. After the passing of the Don't Ask, Don't Tell policy, such discharges rose from 1994, peaking at 1,227 in 2001 (less than 1 percent of the active duty force). Beginning in 2002, the first full year of military operations in the war on terror, discharges under this policy have steadily declined, with 612 service members dismissed in 2006. Since the passing of the Don't Ask, Don't Tell policy, the vast majority of discharges have been triggered by service members' voluntarily admitting being homosexual.44 Many observers question the equity of the policy's enforcement, arguing that in times of crisis, such as the war on terror, the military is much less likely to discharge for homosexuality because of manpower needs. Even so, there has been considerable public debate over the dismissal of homosexual service members, especially Arabic linguists, in recent years. Those who oppose the policy argue that it violates human rights and the U.S. Constitution and that it defines homosexuals as second-class citizens—the latter a claim made in the past by African Americans and currently by women. During the 2008 presidential election campaign, Barack Obama promised to lift the ban on gays openly serving in the American military. Such a step would help pave the way for more young gays and lesbians to serve in the armed forces either as a career or as a transition to other adult roles.

Social Class
According to data from the National Longitudinal Study of the high school graduating class of 1972, men and women serving in the volunteer military did not come from the underclass of American society, but did come from somewhat lower socioeconomic backgrounds, and had somewhat lower academic performance, than their peers who did not serve. Officers performed better in high school and came from higher-status socioeconomic backgrounds than did enlisted personnel. African Americans were over-represented among those who served, primarily because they are over-represented in less affluent social strata.45 The bottom quartile of the socioeconomic distribution was under-represented in the military, largely because of the educational, physical, mental aptitude, and moral46 requirements for service. The top quartile was under-represented primarily because of self-selection. The force was thus manned by the middle range of the socioeconomic distribution, with a mean somewhat below that of the broader society. According to the University of Michigan's Monitoring the Future project, these patterns continued at least through the first two decades of the volunteer force among high school graduates. Enlistment was higher among blacks and Hispanics than among whites, among men from single-parent households, among those whose parents had lower levels of education, and among those who did not plan to attend college.47 High school students with C grade averages were found to be approximately two times as likely to enter military service as their peers with A grade averages.48 Thus, although military service might be playing a larger role in the transition to adulthood for women and for racial and ethnic minorities than it did in the past, and might do so in the future for homosexuals, it is less inclusive across the socioeconomic spectrum than it was during periods of wartime conscription.