The Army's Recruiting Problem Is Male

U.S. Army soldiers with the Wichita Recruiting Company hosted a recruitment booth at Hutchinson
U.S. Army soldiers with the Wichita Recruiting Company hosted a recruitment booth at Hutchinson, Kansas on September 9, 2023. (Aiden Griffitts/U.S. Army Reserve)

The issue is convincing men to put on the uniform.

A decade of declining recruitment numbers for the Army is almost entirely attributable to a significant drop in male recruiting as female enlistments have remained relatively flat, internal service data reviewed by shows.

Since 2013, male enlistments have dropped 35%, going from 58,000 men enlisting in 2013 to 37,700 in 2023, according to the service data. Meanwhile, female recruitment has hovered around 10,000 recruits each year.

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The stark numbers paint a clear picture of a significant source of the military's recruiting struggles, with the Army making up the lion's share of the entire force and thus needing the greatest volume of new enlistments every year. Those shortfalls have contributed to the service overworking its force, something its senior leadership has conceded is a significant problem.

The Army came up 10,000 soldiers short of its goal of bringing in 65,000 new active-duty troops last year. In 2022, it missed a goal of 60,000 soldiers by 15,000. Those shortfalls were consistent with the decline in recruiting among men. This year, the service reduced its goal -- seeking 55,000 new recruits.

    The demographic data traces the military's recruiting struggles with the decline spanning the leadership of presidents from both major parties with vastly different public stances on military culture.

    Critics have argued that the problem is tied to changes in military policy, including nonspecific claims that the military has become "woke." But experts described broader issues with men becoming less engaged in American society and less likely to enroll and graduate from college, more likely to die by suicide or drug overdose, and slowly disappearing from the general workforce.

    The sharp drop in the mid-2010s of men's participation in the workforce, education and military service is part of what some experts call a national "crisis of masculinity" with complex causes.

    "[This] goes way beyond military recruitment," Ronald Levant, professor of psychology at the University of Akron and former president of the American Psychological Association, told "It really has to do with social change. I think there is an amotivational syndrome that seems to permeate a lot of young men today. They're just not motivated to do very much."

    The Army started missing recruiting goals in 2015, coming off the heels of some internal restructuring after the most intense years of the Afghanistan war during the so-called "Obama Surge." That year also saw the rise of the #MeToo movement and former President Donald Trump's successful presidential campaign -- two significant cultural events in which gendered politics and grievances were a center of gravity.

    Secretary of Defense Lloyd J. Austin delivers the oath of enlistment to 85 new recruits
    Secretary of Defense Lloyd J. Austin delivers the oath of enlistment to 85 new recruits across the armed forces at the Military Entrance Processing Station at Fort Meade, Maryland, on July 5, 2023. (Jasmyne Ferber/U.S. Army)

    For the Army's recruiting woes, the decline is spread across America's regions.

    The Northeast saw the worst dip, losing 40% of male recruits between 2012 and 2022. That area, how Army data categorizes it, covers much of the East Coast from Virginia north through New England. The Midwest and West each saw a 39% drop.

    The Southwest saw the smallest drop of 29%. That region covers Texas and north through Nebraska, as well as Arizona and New Mexico.

    And finally, the South saw a 31% dip. While the southern recruiting pool has historically been among the most fruitful for the Army, those recruits make up half of all basic training injuries, far outpacing their general representation in the service. Some of that has been attributed to the obesity epidemic being especially prevalent in the South. Researchers have also attributed it to large swaths of the South having comparatively low household incomes and limited access to health care and healthy food.

    The Army is juggling enormous missions across two hemispheres: bolstering NATO's front lines amid Vladimir Putin's warpath in Ukraine, and establishing a foothold in the Pacific to rein in China's expansionist goals. It's also deployed across Africa and the Middle East on legacy missions that are the remains of two decades of conflict against terrorist groups. Meanwhile at home, units are routinely sent out on prolonged training missions.

    A smaller Army is away from home now more than it was during the peak of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. That taxing pace of deployments and training is burning out the rank and file, which has been reflected in mental health issues and deaths by suicide in the force.

    Meanwhile, undergraduate college enrollment started to dwindle from a high in 2011, plummeting in 2015, with male enrollment in undergraduate studies dropping at nearly twice the rate of women. Between then and 2021, the total undergraduate population of men dropped by 1 million students and women fell by 600,000, according to federal data.

    Women are more likely to finish all levels of college, with men earning around 40% of bachelor's and master's degrees, according to data from the Department of Education -- effectively a total reversal of the education gender gap from before the 1980s and which accelerated at the turn of the millenia.

    Men's falling engagement in major institutions has been referred to as the "male drift" by Richard Reeves, a non-resident senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, and author of the landmark book "Of Boys and Men," which chronicles the issue.

    "It feels like it's the women who are advancing, and the men to some extent retreating," he said in an interview.

    Reeves, who is also the founder of the American Institute for Boys and Men, said that two major trends are occurring at once, one positive and one negative: Women are starting to overcome systemic sexism, but there are also serious concerns about men and boys' development and retreat from society.

    "It's not so much that they're acting out or acting terribly or anti-socially and so on. ... Like, violent crime, with the exception of a few blips, has gone down quite significantly," he said. "But what you're seeing among young men is not 'acting out', so much as 'checking out.'"

    Some conservatives have been regularly devaluing military service, often saying without evidence that the services have become "woke," a shorthand to suggest acquiescence to progressive ideals. Most of those cultural grievances are being spurred as the services have become more welcoming to women, the LGBTQ community and other historically marginalized groups.

    Nearly one-third of Gen Z adults in the U.S. identify as LGBTQ, almost twice that of Millennials, signaling that negative attitudes toward non-heteronormative sexuality are quickly evaporating with each generation.

    Those culture war rallying cries, often used to gin up the Republican base, are similar to tactics wielded against higher education, and are moves that may be more effective with men -- with some data suggesting men are skewing more conservative as women are increasingly becoming more liberal.

    "The Biden Pentagon looking for the causes of the recruiting crisis is kind of like O.J. Simpson looking for the real killer," Sen. Tom Cotton, R-Ark., said during a Fox News interview in 2022. "The way to turn it around is to focus on its core mission, not using the right pronouns or worrying about things like gender ideology. We want men and women to join the military to defend this country, not go to social justice training seminars."

    Since Biden took office, some conservatives have latched onto the idea the military has reduced combat training in favor cultural sensitivity training and turned that unfounded critique into a boogeyman. The trainings, which deal with equal opportunity or harassment, take only a couple of hours and are similar to those in civilian workplaces. They also predate the Biden administration.

    U.S. Army Reserve Flight Medics with the 7-158th Aviation, seen in the visor’s reflection
    U.S. Army Reserve Flight Medics with the 7-158th Aviation, seen in the visor’s reflection, demonstrate their duties aboard a UH-60 Black Hawk during the “Meet Your Army'' recruiting event hosted by the U.S. Army Southern California Recruiting Battalion at Joint Forces Training Base Los Alamitos, in Los Alamitos, California, April 22, 2024. (Brandon Hernandez/U.S. Army Reserve)

    Instead of cultural grievances, the recruiting issue appears to be more closely tied to qualifying for service, much of it inflamed by the ongoing obesity crisis and poor performance on the military's academic entrance exams. In the civilian world, girls have been increasingly outperforming boys in grade school and score higher on college admissions tests. Childhood obesity also impacts boys at a higher rate than girls, with those health ailments, and lagging academic performance, even more prevalent among Americans belonging to racial minority groups.

    In 2022, the Army started the Future Soldier Preparatory Course, for applicants to get in line with the service's academic and physical standards. After a significant expansion, the Army can put 23,500 applicants into basic training annually who otherwise would not have been allowed to enlist -- effectively setting the service up to recoup its entire recruiting deficit.

    The applicants for those courses are more than 70% male, with recruits from racial minority groups being overrepresented, according to Army data. For example, Black applicants are the largest cohort, making up nearly 34% of the course's students -- with white recruits being 33% of attendees. Meanwhile, 24% of 2022 recruits for the Army as a whole were Black, and 44% of recruits were white.

    It's unclear whether the service is eyeing bringing more women into the force to make up for the significant drop in men. Defense officials have expressed confidence in hitting recruiting goals this year, much of that attributed to changes like establishing the Future Soldier Prep Course.

    "There's never certainty when it comes to recruiting," Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin said in response to a question from at a press event in May. "All [services] projected they're going to meet their year-end goal, I feel really good about it." He went on to say that meeting those goals ultimately hinges on precise marketing and talented recruiters.

    The Army's marketing rarely spotlights women in a significant way. A review of the service's recent marketing campaigns found men were two-to-three times more represented, particularly in speaking roles in commercials.

    Other trends are making it more difficult for the Army to find recruits. Typical sedentary activities, which are often isolating, have ballooned in recent years, including playing video games and viewing pornography, both activities that are enjoyed predominantly by men and, while not inherently destructive, can be abused.

    The alarming trends for men's economic role and health have also been weaponized in dark, misogynistic corners of the internet -- sometimes referred to as the "manosphere," which commonly overlaps with far-right communities.

    Those communities lament that men have fallen from their traditional place in society and that there is no quarter for masculinity in modern western culture. That culture includes podcasts, influencers and brands that range from earnest male-oriented self help but more commonly involve anti-feminist and misogynist content. Some of it is very overtly connected to military culture, such as groups charging exorbitant amounts of money to attend so-called "man camps" that mimic Navy SEAL training.

    "The reality is that military service is a major commitment that tests true strength -- physical, mental, morals," said Katherine Kuzminski, who studies the military and society at the Center for New American Security. "There is evidence of a trend toward signaling [a] counterfeit show of strength -- commentaries lamenting a decline in American masculinity -- rather than individuals risking a real test that comes from military service."

    The so-called crisis in masculinity is further complicated by conflicting events. Men are pulling out of the workforce, and traditional masculine roles are disappearing as gender norms are reassessed. But those men are not seeking military service -- the last bastion of traditional and surface-level masculinity.

    "You could argue quite strongly that the military could have a really important role to play in helping these young men," Reeves said. "But you see fewer young men turning to the military or being able to join the military."

    Related: Army Sees Sharp Decline in White Recruits

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