What Do Millennial Military Families Want?

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The Christian Science Monitor recently published a must-read article that really hit home for many millennial military spouses. For military Millennials, ‘duty or child?’ is not just an issue for women. The piece opens with a single-mom service member asking why she has to face a choice between serving her country or keeping custody of her child.

As much as my heart hurt for this woman, I immediately thought, “Here we go, another article turning flexibility into a women’s issue,” but then it took a pleasantly unexpected turn,

…men were just as interested in the topic [workplace flexibility]. Members of [a panel created by the Air Force Chief of Staff] were ‘shocked’ at the number of male officers who sought them out asking to take part in focus groups, because they had something to say. This included men ‘who were frustrated that they felt culturally unable to do things like coach their kids’ little league teams, or take time off work to go to parent-teacher conferences…They wanted to be present–they didn’t want to just delegate that responsibility to a spouse.

As it turns out, many of these male focus group members were “men who wanted to marry someone who has a career.” Go figure. As more and more military spouses seek to maintain or pursue professional careers, the military is “gradually coming to terms” with the idea that the “stay-at-home, portable spouse” of yesteryear is fading away (overdue, I know) which begs the question:

Will military spouse employment become mission essential for recruiting, retaining, and transitioning millennial military service members?

As more and more millennials enter the military with their hallmark focus on quality of life, we can only expect that retired Lieutenant General David Bardo’s words in the Christian Science Monitor’s article will ring clear and true:

Their values are very much about quality of life. Moving every two years and not having a family–they’re not going to do that.

What we can guarantee is that service members WILL get married (more than 50% are married according to the 2013 DoD Demographics Report) and when these millennials marry career-minded partners, they’ll be making decisions concerning the military with two careers in mind. With recruitment, retention and retirement/transition on the line, the military has no choice but to examine the real costs they’ll face if they continue with the 1950s family model as the basis for their quality of life initiatives and programs.

According to a 2014 report from the White House’s Council of Economic Advisors, “more millennials have a college degree than any other generation of young adults” and want to “make a positive social impact on their own children and communities, as well as on society as a whole.”

We might have plenty of millennials willing to serve, but when that service is put against quality of life and maintaining positive tight-knit relationships with their families, millennials interested in military service might not consider enlisting or commissioning in the military a viable, or at the very least, sustainable choice for the long term.

We might see millennial military recruits willing to serve for 4 or 5 years, but when it comes to retaining the best and brightest millennial service members (who will likely marry the best and brightest spouses) willing to dedicate themselves to a military career, unless military culture changes, the DoD might find themselves scrambling to keep service members long enough to benefit from their leadership and talent.

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How Do We Retain Our Millennial Military Service Members?

In the light of the findings from the Military Compensation and Retirement Modernization Commission (longest name ever), so much emphasis is being placed on promotions, sabbaticals, enlistment and retirement while military brass continues to miss the mark on the bread and butter of keeping millennials service members satisfied and willing to serve.

What if I told you that what millennial service members and their spouses really want is military culture to catch up with 21st century life? Dual-income families are the new normal for American families and our military families are no different. But is our military culture ready to embrace the millennial military family with two working spouses?

For those military spouses who shoulder the burden of constantly being the “flexible” career, we pay a pretty steep price when it comes to our upward mobility, earning potential and career satisfaction which ultimately impacts our serving spouse and influences her or his decision to continue their career in the military.

I can’t tell you how many conversations I’ve had with fellow military spouse professionals about the fact that our careers often fall secondary to our service member and not always because of a deployment or TDY, but because of questions like,

Don’t you have a wife for that?

Forgive the sexist language;  91% of military spouses are women and for those of us who work outside the home, or heck, even inside the home, the assumption is that we, the milspouse, exist to liberate our serving spouse from the logistics of every day life, including parenting, despite the fact that our spouses very much want to be hands-on, involved and supportive spouses.

It’s not just about modernizing compensation and retirement; we have to get down to day-to-day operations  that impact military service members and their families.

As simple as it sounds, creating a dual-career inclusive environment requires base leadership and organizations to approach day-to-day operations with a dual-career military family  in mind. Creating an inclusive environment includes not assuming married personnel have a stay-at-home spouse or even if they do have one, making sure that we foster an environment that goes beyond words when it comes to championing a healthy work-life blend.

Keep the Momentum Going Millennials

At the same time, millennial military service members and their families can’t expect or demand change unless we are willing to show up and engage the military community at whole. The more we isolate ourselves from our installation communities by choosing to not participate in military community life activities and traditions, the less likely we are to see a military community culture change. Consider living on base, attending functions that work with your schedules and speaking up when the opportunities present itself! Educate! Engage!

We all need to work together. We need to meet in the middle. Things are changin’. If we want things to continue to change we need to keep the momentum going.

What does the DoD need to know about millennial service members and their spouses?

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