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In August 2023, the U.S. Army released its latest attempt to reach potential recruits from the generational cohort known as 'Generation Z.' Called "First Steps," it's a series of brief "documentaries" that attempts to capture the spirit and emotions associated with life as a young recruit. A drill sergeant is never seen, but we can hear marching cadence in one of the videos, a siren song that quickly morphs into a sick beat.
Will these spots resonate with Gen Z, the generation of Americans born after 1997? The Army certainly hopes so: In 2018, it invested $4 billion in marketing over the next 10 years to reach them. But so far, that effort has come up short, with the Army expecting to fall 15,000 recruits short of its goal in 2023 -- the largest shortfall of all branches of the U.S. military. The Navy expects to be 10,000 recruits short while the Air Force will miss its goal by 3,000; only the Marine Corps believes it will meet its own needs.
Gen Z interest in military service is low and only dropping lower. The Wall Street Journal reports that only 9% of American youth ages 16-21 said they would consider enlisting in 2022, which is down from the 13% recorded during the COVID-19 pandemic. It appears no one wants to join the military, and the military can't seem to figure out what to do about it.
There is one Gen Z officer who believes he has the answer to the military's recruiting woes. Second Lt. Matthew Weiss is a 25-year-old Marine Corps intelligence officer whose new book, "'We Don't Want You, Uncle Sam: Examining the Military Recruiting Crisis with Generation Z" lays out what he believes are some of the major problems his generation has with military service -- and what the military can do about it.
Before joining the Marine Corps, Weiss worked for Anduril Industries, now a defense contractor specializing in artificial intelligence and autonomous weapons systems. During Weiss' time there, it was a tech startup, and he observed how the company attracted new talent as they graduated from college, even in a highly competitive sector.
Weiss went on to study business at the University of Pennsylvania's Wharton School, earning a bachelor's degree and an MBA there. Though young, a newly minted Marine Corps officer with his background might have some of the answers the Department of Defense has spent years and billions searching for.
Weiss breaks down the book into four parts, analyzing Gen Z recruitment, bringing military working conditions and generation expectations into alignment, an analysis of sociocultural influences and "Scope of Service," how the military can give back to society.
Some of Weiss' proposed issues are ones the military might expect from Zoomers. based on what it thinks it knows about the youth of America. Others might be wholly unexpected. But there are places where the values of military services and the values of Gen Z align.
For starters, the book says Gen Z needs an impact they can strive toward; a unique calling, bigger than the individual. Weiss suggests determined mentorship, where Gen Z service members would provide a certain number of hours per year talking to potential recruits, a "Z-Z, heart-heart meaning discussion."
Weiss also believes the current military pay structure is "incongruous" for a generation that watches their peers gain followers on social media. In their mind, better performance should mean more money. To that end, he suggests performance bonuses be added to military pay for those who succeed.
A somewhat counterintuitive suggestion Weiss offers is rooted in Gen Z's connection to devices. Some, Weiss believes, are being "crushed" by the "constant pinging," causing them to crave time to be unplugged from the rest of the world. The military can offer this like no other institution, he says, with real-world responsibilities and experiences away from their devices.
Those are just a few interesting examples. In all, Weiss offers 21 chapters of fact-based problems and solutions written with "the intention of diagnosing and solving a real and serious issue facing our nation," coming from the personal experiences of a Gen Z military officer who did a lot of research to help solve it.
“We Don't Want You, Uncle Sam: Examining the Military Recruiting Crisis with Generation Z” is on sale now in both paperback and on Amazon Kindle e-readers.
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