How the Network Generation Is Changing the Millennial Military


There is one problem with all the advice about how to recruit and lead young millennials in the U.S. military: Millennials are no longer the generation the military needs to focus on. Millennials — those born between 1980 and 1996 — are not joining the military; they are the military. As of 2015, about 72 percent of active duty personnel were millennials. Many millennials could have retired with 20 years in service last year. The junior enlisted service members walking out during training sessions that they deem unworthy of their time are not millennials. They are the next generation: the Network Generation.

The Network Generation, members of which are known as NetGens, consists of those born in and after 1997. This generation accounted for about 70 million members of the U.S. population in 2015. With the eldest turning 21 this year, NetGens now make up much of the military recruiting pool and already form 15 percent of Active Duty Enlisted in the Marine Corps.

This new generation is more intellectually prepared for danger and uncertainty, and is full of determination and self-confidence, but it is also uniquely fragile. The U.S. military requires mental toughness beyond what many NetGens possess when they join. NetGens receive information differently, see themselves as individuals first, and give little weight to traditional mantras. These new recruits are altering the personnel challenges the military faces. Today’s largely millennial military will have to change how it communicates to and trains individuals from the next generation, in order to continue creating fighters who can overcome the intense pressures of armed conflict.

How and Why NetGens Are Different

For the fathers of generational theory, a “generation” is a kindred group of people shaped by the same societal forces and experiences, and who share characteristics, attitudes, and behaviors. Thus, generations are demarcated by their birth years, usually around a 20-year range in the United States.

Every kind of person exists within every generation: go-getters and slackers, altruists and self-serving egoists, artists and analysts, optimists and cynics. The trends in behavior as a group are what allow us to speak of the differences between generations. While military personnel are self-selecting, the trends, contexts, and habits that unite NetGens shape their attitude toward, and in military service. NetGens and millennials differ in their attitudes toward family, their upbringing and education, and their attitude toward finances.

When American millennials were first born, 61 percent of families consisted of two parents in their first marriage, compared to 19 percent single-parent families. This changed over time until, in NetGens’ experience, only 46 percent of families have two parents in their first marriage, 26 percent are single-parent families, and for the first time, parents cohabiting outside of marriage rank statistically among households. This makes NetGens’ understanding of family more malleable.

Millennials’ parents sought to protect them from life’s disappointments. Helicopter parents hovered over their children, even into adulthood. As millennials entered the work force, companies such as Google and LinkedIn instituted a bring-your-parent-to-work day. Parents called into businesses to negotiate their child’s salary or complain their child wasn’t hired.

By contrast, NetGens’ parents are empowering them, according to a 2015 Ernst & Young study, teaching them to plan for life’s difficulties. Parents of NetGens are more likely to tell their children that only the best win and to teach them to be determined and focus on what they are good at.

Up from early millennial rates of 35 percent, 77 percent of NetGens are attending full-day kindergarten. This trend impacts their future behavior: a 2010 ChildTrends meta-analysis found kindergarteners in full-day programs were more likely to have self-confidence and the ability to work and play well with others.

Another key area of divergence is finances. The post-Cold-War era optimism combined with the prosperity of the tech boom enabled millennials’ parents to provide abundantly. Millennials entered the workforce expecting continued largesse like high salaries. Instead, they were shaken by high unemployment levels during the Great Recession. Millennials returned home in droves: The percentage of 18 to 34-year-old men living at home surpassed the percentage married or cohabiting for the first time since before World War II, eventually reaching 35 percent by 2014.

NetGens, too, saw their families lose their savings, homes, and jobs during the Great Recession, but they witnessed this as children. Their experience was not personal job loss, but family financial challenges. Seeing the beginnings of the recovery while still home taught them obstacles can be overcome. It also shapes their expectations related to job security and money: 64 percent of 7–13 year-olds in a 2016 investments study had already begun researching financial planning.

Network Generation and the Military

NetGens who join the armed services exhibit the behaviors and perspectives of their generation as a whole. Because NetGens are 21 and younger, most still children, there are no studies on their impact on the military and very little on the work place. As the smallest armed service, and typically the youngest, the Marine Corps is likely to feel the generational change more acutely and earlier than other armed services. My personal experience teaching junior marines critical thinking and decision-making skills is instructive.

Life Is Tailored. Lifelong instantaneous access to anything — entertainment, shopping, knowledge, validation, people’s locations — has led NetGens to assume all things are accessible whenever they want it. NetGen marines expect to be able to access training and other information exactly when they need it, and in the format they prefer — via website and in person and in app.

Junior marines have also told me they want to be taught by the experts on any given topic — after all, they grew up with access to the experts on most subjects at their fingertips 24/7. Ideally, the expert also would be prior enlisted service, and even have the same occupational specialty as the student. They want the people talking to them to have been in their shoes.

Leaders will need to communicate exactly how they, as people, understand where each NetGen in the audience is coming from. This is hardly the military’s traditional boot camp and basic training approach, but it may need to become so to shape the future fighting forces.

Authenticity Over Propaganda. By age 15, the average NetGen will have seen about 200,000 marketing messages. With marketing pervasive in their lives, NetGens recognize when they are being sold to and don’t trust it. This is clear in their preference for real people, from comedians to video gamers who become YouTube stars, over traditional celebrities.

I came across this active distrust of brands in an eye-opening conversation in 2016. I asked how to incorporate the Marine Corps values — Honor. Courage. Commitment — into my training. The millennials provided the expected answer: explicitly and frequently. But the responses from those under 20 stunned me. All of them echoed one corporal’s statement: “Don’t even say those words to us. We hear that phrase, and we know what’s coming next is just more Marine Corps propaganda.”

The motto was an immediate tune-out trigger. The marines had no problem with the values themselves, but believed they should be taught as part of being a good person — not a good marine. One junior marine added, “I take off this uniform when I go home. I’m a person first, not a marine.”

Other groups I spoke with later had the same reaction. NetGens do not reject these ideas because they are bad, but because they view them as pervasive messaging tactics rather than personally meaningful advice.

Attention and Personal Relevance. Both millennial and NetGen marines can be seen on their phones during briefings and meetings, and commanders complain to me they can’t untether them even in field training. NetGens are distinct in that they’ve had internet access all their lives, and many will not remember life before smartphones. This makes immediate feedback and validation their norm. A 2015 survey of high school students revealed an 8-second filter: If they don’t see the personal value of something within that short window, they move on. Rather than a short attention span, this reflects NetGens’ intolerance for things they perceive as wasting their time.

One marine walked out of my training two sentences into the first example because, as she told me later, “It didn’t apply to me.” Junior marines I spoke with in 2016 also highlighted the need for personal impact. When I asked them whether examples of applying decision-making skills to their careers was engaging, they said, “Make this relevant to us as people. If I can use it in my job, that’s great, but I’m not going to pay attention to it if it doesn’t help me as a person first.”

A common critique of millennials in the military is that they’re constantly questioning orders. For them, the military had to get comfortable answering “why.” For NetGens, the military must get comfortable answering, “why does this matter to me?” At every level of leadership, it will force personal empathy, not a characteristic the military emphasizes.

Struggling to Cope. NetGens are growing up in a world they know is dangerous and uncertain. They have only known a United States at war in the Middle East. Between kindergarten and 12th grade, the oldest NetGens experienced more than double the number of school shooting incidents than the oldest millennials in the same time period. NetGens are aware of this — 43 percent of 7–13 year-olds believe school violence and shootings will be the defining force of their generation.

There is no definitive research identifying a cause, but NetGens’ suicide and depression rates suggest they have trouble coping despite their intellectual preparedness for challenges. Adolescent major depressive episodes for NetGens are trending higher than millennials’ rates, which were largely stable. NetGens also reversed an 18-year downward trend among 9th–12th graders seriously considering attempting suicide. In 2011 when the first NetGens entered high school this rate was 14 percent. By 2015, when all high schoolers were NetGens, it had increased to 17 percent.

Millennials doubled the average youth suicide rate, which was reflected in the Marine Corps, with junior marine (millennial) suicide attempts increasing every year from 2011 to 2015. So far, NetGens’ youth suicide rate has increased even further, and this generation has the highest under-15 suicide rate ever recorded in the United States. Information is not yet publicly available to show whether suicides are rising in the junior military ranks, but suicide prevention is an increasingly hot topic among commanders of young marines.

Most commanders are familiar with post-traumatic stress disorder among combat veterans, but have much to learn about other mental health issues like depression and suicide ideations, especially when they occur among those lacking combat experience. Increasingly, leaders will have to grapple with decisions about which challenges can be managed and which pose an unacceptable risk in combat, and also ensure continuity of treatment when personnel change units.

How the Military Needs to Change

No explanation for NetGens’ fragility has been documented. It may be that their expectations of instant validation and feedback are not met after enlistment, when they are suddenly far from their support networks. Lack of connection within units is probably another major factor. Millennials were the first generation to experience this connected loneliness phenomenon. The Network Generation has a more intense relationship with virtual networks, which might enhance this social disruption. This phenomenon is a significant barrier to developing fighting forces. A 2003 study confirmed the conventional wisdom that soldiers are motivated to fight by camaraderie. If NetGens lack that camaraderie, what will motivate them under fire?

To get NetGen military members to even hear the message, let alone adopt it, millennials and older members of the armed services must make changes in training, leadership, and communication.

  1. Lead with personal meaning. Communications should highlight the personal significance of the message, rather than the military’s traditional bottom-line-up-front requirement. Because personal meaning varies widely, it may be helpful for leadership to clearly acknowledge multiple applications for information being conveyed. Though it may seem hackneyed, commanders may need mandatory training explicitly to develop empathy.
  2. Walk the walk. Knowledge that runs only as deep as the PowerPoint slides may be insufficient for the NetGen audience to take information seriously. Leaders should leverage NetGens’ desire to learn from experts and demonstrate expertise in whatever message they present. Commanders will have to live the values they preach conspicuously to satisfy the distrusting and propaganda-savvy NetGens and retain credibility. Providing opportunities for feedback and publicly acting on that feedback will also build trust and convince NetGens that their leaders are authentic.
  3. Provide the right source. NetGens’ preference for “real” people as role models and celebrities means they want to hear from someone close to them, both in rank and physical proximity, not their unit commander, senior enlisted members, or a message from a four-star general as an opener. Bringing in the sergeant, rather than the sergeant major, for a motivational speech or important safety message, for example, will resonate more powerfully than senior-led briefings or annual web-based training courses.
  4. Connect — both online and off. People cannot develop relationships without real, direct interaction, and those relationships can help guide them through the difficulties of military life. Guided discussions should help NetGen recruits build connections among peers and leaders, because they are more intimate and personal. Commanders can restrict device use in certain instances to help NetGens forge peer relationships. Similarly, assigning unit members to visit a few others outside their circle each month will provide opportunities for relationships that might not otherwise develop. At the same time, leadership should acknowledge the digital tether that provides NetGens with so much of their information, and leverage this connectivity to augment discussions and training with additional resources such as apps or other digital media.
  5. Meet them where they are. Training and delayed entry programs may need to teach new recruits how to handle the stresses of military life before it places them in those stressful situations. At a minimum, the military should make NetGens aware of the many resources available to help them in these challenges. In 2016, MIT made a series of recommendations, requested by the ranking health officers for the Navy and Marine Corps, on improving mental health services. Commanders may require more intensive training to help them identify signs of trouble and more explicit guidelines for determining how to handle such circumstances.

Historically, institutions have been reactive in dealing with generational shifts — such as advocating an overhaul of teaching for millennial students 18 years after they entered college. As the Marine Corps has started to do, the U.S. military as a whole must be proactive as NetGens enter the services. Trustworthiness, resilience, empathy, and personal connectedness take time to develop, and the latter three especially are topics many military members are uncomfortable with. But they will be far less comfortable with a military that is not prepared to fulfill its mission in garrison, let alone in combat with a determined enemy.


KC Reid, formerly the Defense Intelligence Agency’s (DIA) Devil’s Advocate running its alternative analysis program, deployed with the Marines of Combined Joint Task Force – Horn of Africa aboard ship and ashore, and with Multi-National Forces – Iraq in Baghdad where she led a mixed civilian, Air Force, and Army team. A cultural anthropologist by training, she is a recipient of the Intelligence Community Fellowship and DIA Meritorious Civilian Service Award. Currently she is a Booz Allen Hamilton Associate with I Marine Expeditionary Force’s Red Team, which challenges assumptions, mitigates risks, and expands opportunities to enhance decision making.

Image: Cpl. Asia J. Sorenson