Why is the U.S. military struggling to recruit young Americans? (2023)

Every branch of the U.S. military is struggling to meet its fiscal year 2022 recruiting goals, say multiple U.S. military and defense officials, and numbers obtained by NBC News show both a record low percentage of young Americans eligible to serve and an even tinier fraction willing to consider it.

The officials said the Pentagon’s top leaders are now scrambling for ways to find new recruits to fill out the ranks of the all-volunteer force. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin and Deputy Secretary of Defense Kathleen Hicks consider the shortfall a serious issue, said the officials, and have been meeting on it frequently with other leaders.

“This is the start of a long drought for military recruiting,” said Ret. Lt. Gen. Thomas Spoehr of the Heritage Foundation, a think tank. He said the military has not had such a hard time signing recruits since 1973, the year the U.S. left Vietnam and the draft officially ended. Spoehr said he does not believe a revival of the draft is imminent, but “2022 is the year we question the sustainability of the all-volunteer force.”

The pool of those eligible to join the military continues to shrink, with more young men and women than ever disqualified for obesity, drug useorcriminal records. Last month, Army Chief of Staff Gen. James McConville testified before Congress that only 23% of Americans ages 17-24 are qualified to serve without a waiver to join, down from 29% in recent years.

An internal Defense Department survey obtained by NBC News found that only 9% of those young Americans eligible to serve in the military had any inclination to do so, the lowest number since 2007.

The survey sheds light on how both Americans’ view of the military and the growing civilian-military divide may also be factors in slumping recruitment, and how public attitudes could cause recruiting struggles for years to come.

Why is the U.S. military struggling to recruit young Americans? (1)

More than half of the young Americans who answered the survey — about 57% — think they would have emotional or psychological problems after serving in the military. Nearly half think they would have physical problems.

(Video) Why The US Military is Struggling to Recruit Soldiers

“They think they’re going to be physically or emotionally broken after serving,”said one senior U.S. military officialfamiliar with the recruiting issues, who believes a lack of familiarity with military service contributes to that perception.

Among Americans surveyed by the Pentagon who were in the target age range for recruiting, only 13% had parents who had served in the military, down from approximately 40% in 1995. The military considers parents one of the biggest influencers for service.

An expert on military personnel policy says that middle class parents, including those who are newly middle class, often encourage their kids to go to college before selecting a career, which hurts recruiting for enlisted personnel. “Changing the mind of parents is the really tough part, particularly if these are parents who worked really hard for their children to go to college,” said Kate Kuzminski from the Center for a New American Security.She noted that recruiting ads increasingly target the parents of potential recruits. “That’s where they’re trying to win the hearts and minds.”

Why is the U.S. military struggling to recruit young Americans? (2)

Overall confidence in U.S. government institutions is also decreasing, and that has hit the U.S. military as well. In 2021 the annual Reagan National Defense Survey, conducted by the Ronald Reagan Presidential Foundation and Institute, found that just 45% of Americans had a great deal of trust and confidence in the military, down 25 points since 2018.

The trend will most likely continue as the overall military shrinks and familiarity with service keeps dropping, say the officials. In 2021, an Army study found that 75% of Americans ages 16-28 knew little to nothing about the Army.

“This recruiting crisis is like a slow-moving wave coming at us,” said one senior defense officialinvolved in recruiting and personnel issues. “As the military has gotten smaller and the public have gotten less and less familiar with those in uniform, it has grown. And Covid accelerated it.”

A Pentagon spokesperson declined tocomment.

(Video) Military struggling to meet recruiting goals

This year’s numbers so far

The Army has met about 40% of its enlisted recruiting mission for FY22, with just over three months left in the fiscal year, which ends Sept. 30. The final quarter — the summer — is typically when the services recruit the most candidates following high school graduation.

Space Force will also likely make its goal, according to U.S. military officials, but as the newest branch of the military it only looks to recruit about 500 Guardians this fiscal year.

The U.S. Air Force, on the other hand, has to recruit roughly 100 times as many airmen, about 50,000, but is currently more than 4,000 below where it should be at this point in the fiscal year. While the Air National Guard and Reserve are unlikely to meet their goals, the active duty are taking it week to week, according to a senior U.S. military official. “We are hopeful that the active duty will meet their goal. Hopeful, but not certain,” the official said.

The last time the Air Force missed its goal was fiscal 1999, and the last time before that was 1979.

Navy officials, who have been using the summer movie “Top Gun: Maverick” to try to attract recruits, say they hope to ultimately meet their active-duty and overall strength goals.

The active-duty Marine Corps is likely to make its recruiting goals this year. The Marine in charge of manpower, however, recently told Congress that 2022 is “arguably the most challenging recruiting year since the inception of the all-volunteer force.”

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The Coast Guard is lagging behind its active-duty numbers for the year. It has met 80% and 93% of its goals for reserves and officers respectively, but has filled only about 55% of its target of 4,200 active-duty enlistments.

(Video) Why The U.S. Military Faces A Growing Recruiting Crisis

How to fix it

To tackle the growing crisis, the Pentagon isreviewingsome of the more than 250 disqualifiers for service,including some medical conditions that have historically required recruits to obtain a waiver for service or kept individuals out of uniform completely,according to multiple defense and U.S. military officials.

For example, in the past ailments like asthma and ADHD could disqualify someone from serving if the recruit had symptoms after their 13th or 14th birthdays. But now the Pentagon is reviewing whether individuals who have been asymptomatic for a shorter period of time could join without a waiver.

The military is also discussing allowing service members to use platforms like TikTok to attract recruits. In 2020, President Donald Trump ordered a ban on the use of the social media platform because the Chinese company that owns it collects biometric information on users.

“We have to be where the recruits are, and TikTok is one of the biggest social media platforms in the world,” one defense officialinvolved in personnel issuessaid.

The Pentagon is also looking to increase recruitment by targeting more influencers like parents, teachers and coaches, by creating recruiting stations with multiple services in them rather than service specific locations, and even moving recruiting offices to better neighborhoods, according to multiple U.S. military and defense officials.

The Pentagon may also put more effort into recruiting eligible DACA recipients, said officials.

Long-term challenges like declining eligibility and trust in the military are only part of the issue, according to defense and U.S. military officials. More recent challenges like a national labor shortage, inflation and the effects of Covid have also affected recruitment. Two years of Covid has led to canceled air shows, a drastic decrease in in-person recruitment efforts, and more people now wanting to work from home.

Kuzminski agrees that Covid hurt recruiting, but adds that another challenge has been political pressure in some school districts not to let recruiters on campuses. Face-to-face meetings can be a powerful incentive to enlist.

Army Secretary Christine Wormuth recently created a recruiting “tiger” team, which meets every two weeks to discuss ways to tackle recruitment.

“The Army, like other services, is facing the most challenging recruiting market in the last 20 years,” Wormuth told NBC News. “I expect these recruiting market headwinds to persist, so the Army must improve how we recruit in this new market environment. In March 2022, the Army began a comprehensive review and analysis of our accessions enterprise, recruiting policy, organizational structure and marketing practices. Recommendations for this review, coupled with other immediate steps we are taking, will help the Army address recruiting challenges and position the Army recruiting for success in the future.”

Why is the U.S. military struggling to recruit young Americans? (4)
(Video) U.S. military faces historic struggle with recruitment

The Army is offering flexible 2-year to 6-year contracts, duty stations of choice, a program where enlistees can be stationed with their friends, and a $10,000 quick-ship bonus.

Some of the service branches are offering unprecedented bonuses for signing up or re-enlisting, up to $50,000 for certain specialties in the Army, Air Force and the Navy.

But one U.S. military official said bonuses can only help so much. “We can throw money at the problem all we want, but until we change how young people see us in uniform, we are going to struggle to get them to raise their right hands.”

Courtney Kube

Courtney Kube is a correspondent covering national security and the military for the NBC News Investigative Unit.

Molly Boigon

Molly Boigon is an intern at NBC News.

(Video) The US Military’s Struggle to Recruit New Soldiers


Why is the military having trouble recruiting? ›

Just 9 percent of Americans of service age say they want to serve, down from 23 percent a few years ago. A mix of factors looks to be a work. A robust job market reduces the economic incentive to join the military.

Is the U.S. military struggling to recruit? ›

The Army is struggling to convince people to join the service. It missed its recruitment target last year by about 15,000 people, and U.S. Army Secretary Christine Wormuth called it a, quote, "serious situation." This year, she's been meeting with students, school leaders and recruiters.

Is the military facing a recruiting crisis? ›

America's armed services are failing to meet their recruiting goals, with the Army in particular suffering the worst shortfalls in five decades.

Why are less people enlisting in the military? ›

First, the number of young people who are eligible to serve in the military dropped precipitously last year — from an already low figure of 29 percent to a shocking 23 percent — largely due to the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic.

What age does the US military stop recruiting? ›

Each branch of the military has age limits to enlist in active duty: Air Force: 17 - 39. Army: 17 - 35. Coast Guard: 17 - 31.

Is the Army not reaching recruitment goals? ›

The Army's top officials told lawmakers Tuesday morning that the service's recruiting slump won't end this year, making fiscal 2023 the second year in a row that the branch won't meet its recruiting targets.

Is it getting harder to join the military? ›

But the pool of young people who meet the basic standards to enlist in the military is also shrinking. Only 23% of Americans aged 17 to 24 are eligible to join without being granted a waiver. This is down from 29% in recent years, according to Pentagon data.

What is the hardest US military to join? ›

The hardest military branch to get into in terms of education requirements is the Air Force. The military branch with the toughest basic training is the Marine Corps. The hardest military branch for non-males because of exclusivity and male dominance is the Marine Corps. What is the smallest military branch?

Is the military raising the age limit? ›

Navy Used 16-Year-Old Law Made to Boost Army Recruiting to Raise Enlistment Age for Sailors. The Navy will now allow men and women up to age 41 to enlist in the service, a new change in policy for which it has the Army to thank.

What are the US Army recruitment conditions? ›

Age: Between 17-35 years old. Medical, Moral, Physical: Medically and physically fit, and in good moral standing. Citizenship: A U.S. citizen or permanent resident with a valid Green Card. Education: A high school graduate or equivalent.

Are the Marines struggling with recruitment? ›

The Marines will be able to avoid eating into pools of delayed entry applicants in order to make recruitment goals this year, unlike counterparts in the Army, Navy and Air Force.

When people are forced to join the army? ›

Conscription (also called the draft in the United States) is the state-mandated enlistment of people in a national service, mainly a military service.

Is the Air Force struggling to recruit? ›

Air Force Faces 10 Percent Recruiting Shortfall in 2023 | Air & Space Forces Magazine.

Is the Army in need of recruits 2023? ›

Army already has met retention goal for 2023 as service struggles with recruiting, top enlisted soldier says. WASHINGTON — The Army already has met its goal for 2023 of keeping more than 50,000 troops in its ranks as the military struggles with attracting enough recruits, the service's top enlisted soldier said.


1. Military recruitment down as fewer young Americans enlist, are qualified to serve
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2. Army struggling with recruitment numbers
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3. U.S. Military Struggling With Recruitment
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4. Military Fights To Increase Recruiting, As ‘Outdated Perceptions’ Remain
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5. U.S. armed forces struggle to find and recruit new soldiers
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6. What is behind the US military’s recruitment crisis? | UpFront
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