With robust sample sizes, Morning Consult’s public opinion data can be analyzed by specific demographics, such as gender, generation, political party, income, race and more. Please contact [email protected] to purchase this data.
The U.S. military is in the midst of a recruitment crisis. The Army missed its recruiting goals by a fair margin in 2022 and is projected to fall short again this year. Other branches barely met their goals, and several are likely to miss them for 2023. The future of the all-volunteer force depends most immediately on convincing Gen Zers to serve.
There are recruitment challenges that go beyond getting information about the military to young people. Recruiters have been competing with strong private-sector hiring and struggling to address decreased fitness among the U.S. population. But an important first piece of the puzzle is generating knowledge and interest among young Americans.
Previous efforts to appeal to the young generation have involved paying for NFL teams to honor military members and veterans during games, producing slick music videos for the Army and setting up recruitment booths outside showings of “Top Gun: Maverick.” But Gen Z’s relationship with the U.S. military is different from that of its predecessors. Young people’s sources for information on the military are shifting — like so much else for this generation — to being very online.
Gen Z interest in the military follows familiar demographic trends
In a survey of 1,002 Gen Zers (ages 13-26), 17% said they were “very likely” or “somewhat likely” to be serving in the U.S. military in the next few years. This is a different age group from the Department of Defense’s Futures Survey, which found that as of fall 2022, only 9% of 16- to 21-year olds said they would “definitely” or “probably” serve in the military.
Specific demographics at scale: Surveying thousands of consumers around the world every day powers our ability to examine and analyze perceptions and habits of more specific demographics at scale, like those featured here.
Why it matters: Leaders need a better understanding of their audiences when making key decisions. Our comprehensive approach to understanding audience profiles complements the “who” of demographics and the “what” of behavioral data with critical insights and analysis on the “why.”
Similarly to other findings, our data shows that different demographics exhibit different levels of interest in serving in the U.S. military, with rural, nonwhite and male respondents, as well as those from the South and West, more likely to say they’ll join up. Political factors may also play a role, with young people identifying as Republicans being 6 percentage points more likely to say they will enlist relative to all Gen Z respondents. The traditional trend that members of military households are a good deal more likely to consider spending time in the military also holds.
Gen Zers Who Are Male, Rural, Southern and From Military Households Are More Inclined to Serve
Moviegoers, soccer fans and generative AI users have profiles that overlap with military interest
Beyond the typical demographics, we found that frequent moviegoers and young fans of major league sports — most notably soccer — were more likely to say they are interested in serving in the military in the coming years than the rest of Gen Z. To some extent, this validates the approach of past recruiting efforts involving cooperation with Hollywood and sports leagues.
Interestingly, those who use generative AI tools on a regular basis also reported much higher interest in military careers. Per other Morning Consult data, frequent generative AI users tend to have a psychological profile of “early adopters” of new technology, who skew male and nonwhite. People with that profile appear to overlap with those expressing interest in military careers.
Moviegoers, Sports Fans and Early Adopters of New Tech Show Higher Interest in the Military
Gen Z is getting its information about the military online
Traditionally, the military has been a family affair, with young people growing up in military households hearing about the service directly from their relatives, and ending up much more likely to serve. This finding still shows up in our data, with young people living in military households being 9 percentage points more likely to express interest in serving. Among Gen Z respondents who identified friends and family as their biggest source of information on military service, 72% specifically cited friends and family who are veterans or active duty. But this path to reliable recruitment is increasingly insufficient.
Gen Zers overall, and youngsters considering military service in particular, say their primary sources of information on the military are social media and the internet. Understanding young people’s online information diet as it relates to military content will therefore be increasingly important to the Pentagon if it hopes to continue to reach this group.
Gen Z Primarily Gets Its Information About the Military Online and From Family
The finding that those likely to serve are getting their information on the military from scripted movies and television at twice the rate of Gen Zers overall indicates that either traditional media is having an outsize impact on perceptions of the military, or those with pre-existing interest are seeking out military-themed movies and shows.
Military influencers on TikTok and YouTube are making an impression
We then asked an open-ended question to the 190 Gen Zers who said the internet is their primary source for information on military service, soliciting more details about where they saw military-related content online. One thing was clear: Short-form video is king.
TikTok received the most mentions overall and is especially popular among Gen Z women. Gen Z men, meanwhile, are most likely to be watching military content on YouTube. Several respondents specifically mentioned being shown ads about military service while using social media sites such as Instagram. But more of them mentioned watching material posted directly by current or former members of the armed forces, or “military influencers.”
Gen Z Is Getting Its Information About the U.S. Military on TikTok and YouTube
TikTok’s position as Gen Z’s top online source for information about the military is especially problematic for the Pentagon. DOD personnel and employees of other federal agencies are prohibited from using or downloading TikTok on their work devices due to national security concerns about the app’s ties to China. And while military members are still active on TikTok (just try looking up #miltok), recruiters are not supposed to use the platform to conduct business. Furthermore, the ban may have a chilling effect on private use of TikTok, especially for service members keen on following the rules.
Adapting to the digital home front
The Pentagon is aware that grassroots military content on social media may be the best way to target young people, but it has a complex relationship with social media in general. In a recent article in War on the Rocks, an online media platform focusing on national security analysis, the authors pointed to the Army’s social media policy, which they say has caused confusion over whether personnel can mention their Army affiliation in personal account profiles. The military understandably has concerns about soldiers’ use of social media as an operational and intelligence vulnerability. But others have noted that the Ukrainian military has been leveraging soldiers’ personal social media accounts to wage a highly successful information war, a strategy the U.S. military might emulate for recruitment purposes.
The military’s complex relationship with social media in general, and with TikTok in particular, is unlikely to get simpler any time soon. But clearer permission, and even encouragement, for service members to tell their stories online could help. One thing seems clear: In order to continue to project U.S. power abroad, the armed forces will first have to project their image to young Americans at home.