Much of the military will fall short of recruitment goals by as much as 25% this year — caused by a combination of obesity and falling patriotism in Gen Z and by restrictions on recruits having had therapy.
The Army, Navy, Air Force, and Coast Guard are all expected to fall short of their recruitment goals this year, they told The Post.
“My generation is a real challenge,” 25-year-old Marine 2nd Lt. Matthew Weiss told the Post. “Something has to change.”
A spokesperson for the Air Force said they will likely miss their goal of 26,877 new recruits by 10%. The Coast Guard said they will likely only fill 75% of the number of full-time, non-commissioned recruits they need.
The Marine Corps is on track to fill its ranks this year but said that just 23% of the recruitable population meet their medical, moral, and mental standards for service.
Space Force, by far the smallest of the branches, told The Post they exceeded their recruitment goal by 10%, shipping out 517 new enlistees.
The crisis comes after Internal Pentagon research found 9% of 16- to 21-year-olds would consider service — representing a 4% drop since the beginning of the pandemic and the lowest level since 2007, which was the peak year of military deaths in Iraq.
Jameel Armstrong, a 20-year-old Navy Information Systems Technician Third Class currently deployed in Bahrain, says many in his generation are too apathetic to enlist.
“I just don’t think it’s appealing to the average modern teenager,” Armstrong, who says he enlisted at age 18 to serve his country, told The Post. “There’s a lot of apathy. We’re so divided right now. And so a lot of young people think, ‘Why would I wanna defend a government that doesn’t appreciate me, or is so divided?’”
Willie Reed, a Navy petty officer third class serving on the USS John C. Stennis aircraft carrier, thinks Gen Z lacks the kind of formative life events that inspired prior generations to serve.
“I don’t think it’s that they have no love for their country, but I don’t see it being a driving force for them to want to join,” Reed, a 30-year-old who shares his experience in the military on YouTube, told The Post.
“A part of me thinks that, if you can barely remember things like the 9/11 attack, then you won’t have the same kind of motivation to serve that my generation did.”
Generational researcher and psychologist Dr. Jean Twenge says that Gen Z “stands out for their high levels of pessimism” about the country.
In her book Generations: The Real Differences between Gen Z, Millennials, Gen X, Boomers and Silents—and What They Mean for America’s Future, Twenge notes that Zoomers are the generation most likely to favor socialism over capitalism, and that 4 in 10 say the Founding Fathers are better described as villains than heroes.
“This skepticism about the U.S. system very well might be playing a role in military recruiting,” Twenge told The Post.
The Army said the state of the economy is also a factor. “A strong U.S. job market has historically correlated with a challenging recruiting environment for the military,” Lt. Col. Ruth Castro said.
“Fierce competition in the private sector drives wages up and makes the Army’s benefits less attractive to prospective candidates.”
But, even if they want to serve, many Gen Zers are disqualified on the basis of their physical and mental health.
More than half (56%) of 18- to 25-year-olds are overweight or obese, according to Johns Hopkins researchers — meaning they can’t enlist. Meanwhile, a record number of young people have been diagnosed with mental health disorders.
And Master Sergeant William Long, talent acquisition operations manager at the Army National Guard in Michigan, says that standards for mental fitness need to be updated to reflect the fact that more young people who don’t have a mental disorder opt to go to therapists.
“If someone has a grandmother pass away and doesn’t have the skillset to grieve, and so they go to a counselor — that would probably be disqualifying,” Long told The Post. “We keep shooting ourselves in the foot because those interactions don’t necessarily mean they have a disorder.”
As they struggle to attract Zoomers, the military is scrambling for solutions. Several branches recently increased recruitment payouts, long used to attract people with specialist skills, and widened their availability.
Leslie Brown, chief of public affairs at the Air Force Recruiting Service, told The Post the Air Force has amped up marketing campaigns and loosened some requirements, including prohibitions on hand and neck tattoos and past marijuana use and is “already seeing very positive impacts from these changes.”
The Navy has also made efforts to expand eligibility to those who would have previously fallen short of their standards.
Future Sailor Preparatory Courses, unveiled earlier this year, helps those with as much as 6% excess body fat reach eligibility requirements. It is projected to add 338 new recruits this year. Another pilot program onboards recruits whose standardized testing scores would previously have been disqualifying.
A spokesperson for the Army said their Future Soldier Preparatory Course, which similarly helps prospective recruits overcome academic and physical fitness barriers to service, has enrolled 8,800 potential soldiers since launching last August and boasts a 95% graduation rate.
Meanwhile the Coast Guard has opened six recruiting offices this year and plans to add ten more in the next year, according to Commanding Officer, Coast Guard Recruiting Command, Captain Benjamin Keffer.
“As the smallest of the military branches, the Coast Guard’s largest struggle continues to be lack of awareness of the Service’s missions and impacts,” Keffer said.
Matthew Weiss, a Gen Z Second Lieutenant in the Marine Corps currently deployed in Australia, thinks there’s still more to be done.
“Declining patriotism is going to hurt recruitment— there’s no question about that,” he told The Post. “But there’s still enough patriotism that you can find strong people that believe in serving the nation.”
Last month he published a book about the Gen Z recruiting crisis, provocatively titled “We Don’t Want You, Uncle Sam.” Weiss says the gap can be closed if the military starts meeting young people where they are: on social media.
“I don’t want people in uniform shaking their butt, doing crazy dances, and disparaging the uniform,” Weiss said. “But we do have to normalize serving — and that means using social media, having positive discussions in uniform, and showing the American public that we’re regular people doing a pretty extraordinary thing.”