In 2009, 550 retired admirals and generals, including two former chairmen of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, formed an advocacy group, Mission: Readiness. What motivated them to act: shock and dismay at a U.S. Department of Defense report that 70% of young Americans between the ages of 17 and 24 — millennials — were unable to serve in the military.
The reason? These kids were poorly educated (lacking a high school diploma, GED or likely to fail at the services’ basic entry exam), physically unfit (overweight, lacking cardiovascular stamina, having particular medication requirements), or had a record of crime or drug abuse.
Ten years later, the unfitness rate is now 71%, but it’s with a different group, Generation Z.
How did we get to a point at which an approximate 97 million out of the 142 million Americans citizens in two generational cohorts cannot meet the most basic requirements of service to their nation?
This is about more than military service. The competencies being measured are not just relevant to firing a rifle, piloting a plane, or manning a ship. These are measurements of basic aptitude, self-respect and motivation. They say something about whether individuals can meet the responsibilities of citizenship and adulthood.
Sadly, this decline is mirrored in other ways. Today, approximately one-third of men ages 22 to 34 are still living at home with their parents; 18.7% of persons 18 to 29 years of age are obese; 30% of millennials consider themselves “lonely” and 22% say they have no friends.
Consider the converse of that 71%: The 29% who have some educational attainment, are healthy and have no law enforcement record. These individuals become the target for all recruiting, not just military, but for college, for employers. More broadly, they become the 29% on track for productive lives.
I’m the father of three sons — one Millennial, two from Generation Z — and have been around Millennials and Gen Xers daily in every venue known to the American parent. I’ve had thousands of conversations with parents and have heard two overriding frustrations.
First, parents are frustrated with an electronics-saturated culture. Dr. Jean Twenge has written extensively on this, noting for example, that roughly 20% of 14- to 17-year-olds spend seven hours on screens daily. This fits with a recent Pew Research Center report that found teens use the internet “almost constantly.” Hence, at the same time parents are bemoaning screens, they are unwilling to limit their kids’ use of the ubiquitous glowing rectangle. There’s a simple answer: Turn it all off.
Second, I have heard parents lament the incessant focus by academic and social institutions — even in athletic environments — on equality of outcomes. Again, a simple answer: Stop fault-finding and find new forums in which your kids can grow, compete and achieve.
My three sons are firmly in the 29%. My concern for the 71% is not schadenfreude because my sons have limited competition. It’s this: In 10 years, what kind of nation will we have with nearly 97 million Americans trying to become full-fledged adults, still marked by shortcomings in education, compromised by health, weighed down with intractable behavioral and law enforcement records? How will these individuals begin to lead productive lives, with the responsibilities of follow-through, skills and savvy to contribute to the workplace?
Actually, the problems have already begun. The Pew Research Foundation recently reported that a staggering 30% of millennial men between the ages of 18 and 33 have no job and are not engaged in the workforce at all. These individuals have lost their free agency, maintained by their families or the state, stuck in the “perpetual childhood” about which de Toqueville warned if and when a significant portion of citizens would fail to gain traction in civic life.
After a full decade, the 71 percenters are still with us. We are only beginning to see the appalling costs to our society.
Nelligan is the father of three sons and the author of “Four Lessons From My Three Sons: How You Can Raise Resilient Kids.”