By: Kate Kidder


Sept. 11 and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan marked a significant generational shift in the makeup of the military. Over the last decade, millennials represented 65% of those who served and deployed.

As the spouse of an active duty service member for the last eight years, I consider myself fortunate to be surrounded by those who’ve answered the call — the ones who wear the uniform, and the ones they leave behind.

The confluence of millennials and military culture yields new patterns and challenges for both. For example, unlike our predecessors, millennials are less concerned with retirement than they are with job fulfillment and work-life balance. We are much more likely to leave a job over the frustration with poor management or inefficient systems (whether real or perceived), even at the cost of a retirement plan. In the corporate world, the movement from the traditional pension to more portable 401K style plans contributes to easier transitions between jobs.

It isn’t simply that millennials are impulsive, entitled, or don’t think through consequences (though of course some fit the bill); it’s that the incentives that millennials respond to are fundamentally different from the incentives that previous generations responded to. The challenge for employers writ-large, then, is to figure out how to best incentivize talent, an acute problem facing today’s military. (Full disclosure: studying these things is my day job).

If any retirement system attempts to incentivize the retention of top talent, it’s the military. The current military system is more akin to pension plans of yore, one of the few defined benefit plans still in existence. If service members are willing and able to stay in for 20 years, they receive 50% of their average base pay for their three highest annual incomes. The percentage increases by 2.5% for each year they remain in the military after the initial 20. However, if service members separate before year 20, they forego any and all retirement. Increasingly, top performers are willing to do just that.

What this means is that there is currently a mismatch between the incentives that are offered and the incentives that are effective.

In my experience (and ever-present in the blogosphere), one of the major considerations that millennial service members are wrestling with is the trade-off between their own careers and their spouses’. High-performing service members are frequently attracted to spouses who are equally high performers in their own right. In my circle alone, I know spouses with MBAs, JDs, DVMs, and DDMs; spouses who are talk show hosts, engineers, lobbyists, accountants, and professors. Their career paths and the marks of professional success — partnerships, tenure, and the like—are largely hindered by frequent moves and the perception that military spouses are a hiring risk.

To be fair, the Department of Defense and the services have all made heroic efforts towards spousal employment and education. However, most of the employment programs offered are geared towards entry level positions that are easily transportable from one base to the next. Educational assistance programs promise professional opportunities for spouses, but the practical reality of time limitations means that these programs empower the education of nurses, not doctors; paralegals, not lawyers; teachers, not administrators. While these programs greatly improve the quality of life for many families, they don’t meet the needs of all service members and their spouses.

So what is the way ahead?

First, don’t confuse professional spouses raising the issue of career paths as a plea for pity. Instead, view the issue as a key component of the talent management and retention of the best and brightest soldiers, sailors, airmen, and Marines. Second, recognize that the issue of spousal employment is wrapped up in the much larger issue of the military personnel system, which often feels impersonal and incapable of maximizing its utility or matching the right person to the right job. If a service member feels underutilized and his or her spouse has prospects for career advancement, that service member is more likely to separate from the military.

Finally, recognize that millennials, dedicated to service and sacrifice, are the future of U.S. military preeminence. The onus is on the Department of Defense and the services to provide the right incentives for retaining the highest performers.

It’s a matter of national security.

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