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To Improve Gen Z Recruitment, the Military Should Empower Its Online Influencers

The U.S. military has a complex relationship with social media in general and TikTok in particular — which is precisely where Gen Z is most likely to get its information about military life
Graphic conveying Gen z's views on joining the military
Getty Images / Morning Consult artwork by Ashley Berry and Natalie White.
December 07, 2023 at 5:00 am UTC

Key Takeaways

  • 17% of Gen Zers (ages 13-26) express some interest in joining the military. Men, nonwhite and rural Americans, and those from the South and West regions of the United States are more likely to consider it.

  • While family and friends with military experience are still a big source of information for young people, the internet and social media are the No. 1 way that Gen Z is learning about the military.

  • Short-form video is the main avenue. Gen Zers most often mentioned TikTok, and then YouTube, when asked where they consume content related to the military. These young respondents mentioned seeing posts from military influencers more than ads or scripted military content.

  • The Department of Defense’s complicated relationship with social media in general, and with TikTok in particular, is potentially holding it back from allowing its organic social media presence to reach its full potential. Changes could allow the Pentagon to better project its image to young Americans, and subsequently project American power in the world.

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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

The difference in each group's reported likelihood of joining the military relative to Gen Zers overall (in percentage points):
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Survey conducted Oct. 16-29, 2023, among a representative sample of 1,002 U.S. respondents ages 13-26, with an unweighted margin of error of +/-3 percentage points.

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

The difference in each group's reported likelihood of joining the military relative to Gen Zers overall (in percentage points):
Morning Consult Logo
Survey conducted Oct. 16-29, 2023, among a representative sample of 1,002 U.S. respondents ages 13-26, with an unweighted margin of error of +/-3 percentage points.

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

Shares citing each of the following as their primary source for information about the military:
Morning Consult Logo
Survey conducted Oct. 16-29, 2023, among a representative sample of 1,002 U.S. respondents ages 13-26, including 170 who said they will likely be serving in the military in the next few years, with unweighted margins of error of +/-3 and +/-8 percentage points, respectively.

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

Rank order of how many times Gen Z men and women mentioned each of the following in open-ended responses about online sources for information about the military:
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Responses collected Oct. 16-29, 2023, among 1,002 U.S. respondents ages 13-26.

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.

A headshot photograph of Sonnet Frisbie
Sonnet Frisbie
Deputy Head of Political Intelligence

Sonnet Frisbie is the deputy head of political intelligence and leads Morning Consult’s geopolitical risk offering for Europe, the Middle East and Africa. Prior to joining Morning Consult, Sonnet spent over a decade at the U.S. State Department specializing in issues at the intersection of economics, commerce and political risk in Iraq, Central Europe and sub-Saharan Africa. She holds an MPP from the University of Chicago.

Follow her on Twitter @sonnetfrisbie. Interested in connecting with Sonnet to discuss her analysis or for a media engagement or speaking opportunity? Email [email protected].

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