According to the Department of Defense, there were 1.3 million members of the armed forces as of March 2020. A recent study dives deeper into who these people are, where they come from and how popular beliefs about their origins and reasons for enlisting may be further off than many might think.

"The appearance of U.S. Department of Defense (DoD) visual information does not imply or constitute DoD endorsement."“The appearance of U.S. Department of Defense (DoD) visual information does not imply or constitute DoD endorsement.”

Widely held misconceptions

Since service in the armed forces became voluntary in 1973, after the draft was abolished, many Americans believed it would attract primarily disadvantaged groups and young people with limited prospects. However, new research published in the Journal of Strategic Studies reveals that this stereotype does not reflect reality. The study shows that military service attracts a diverse range of people as a result of its attractive career possibilities and competitive benefits.

The study, titled “A mercenary army of the poor? Technological change and the demographic composition of the post-9/11 U.S. military,” debunks the myths that often permeate academic and mass media publications. It explains that many assume that the majority of enlisted personnel come from poor rural communities or economically disadvantaged urban environments, who see the armed forces as an “escape” or “sanctuary.”

As the researchers pointed out, this is not only a problematic stereotype, but it also implies that the demographic makeup of those out on the front lines is disproportionate to the U.S. population as a whole — hence the “rich man’s war, poor man’s fight” perspective.

Class-based conclusions

The researchers tested two assumptions. The first — the opportunity cost theory — “implies that individuals from more disadvantaged socio-economic backgrounds, lacking the skills to compete in the job market, have more to gain and less to lose from joining the military.”

However, according to their findings, the majority of recruits have in fact come from the middle class, with above-average levels of affluence. Contrary to popular belief, the poorest (and wealthiest) communities are underrepresented in the armed forces.

The study concludes that “men and women who serve are likely to embody the values and culture of the median voters. This affects not only the nature of the military itself, but also the calculations in terms of costs and benefits of democracies electing to go to war.”

Skill-related findings

The second assumption — the de-skilling hypothesis — suggests “that increasing reliance on advanced technology has relieved the military from employing highly skilled personnel, thus allowing for the recruitment of less talented individuals.”

On this point, the researchers found most recruits exhibited average cognitive skill levels. However, lower-income individuals with higher intelligence levels — and, by extension, better career prospects — were more likely to enlist.

The researchers conclude that the increased use of technology in the military has actually increased, rather than decreased, the need for highly skilled recruits. They argue that the continued sophistication and complexity of military tactics, tools, threats, and technologies have in fact raised the bar for the recruitment process.

These new understandings help “explain why the U.S. military has displayed high levels of military effectiveness in recent conflicts, an outcome that advanced technology alone cannot account for.”

That the U.S. military is not a last-resort employment destination but rather a selective employer offering attractive career opportunities suggests that each branch will need to maintain a competitive position in the job market. The researchers forecast additional spending, higher compensation and other incentives.