The Sinking Ship of Theseus: Adapting the U.S. Military to the Modern Family
In Greek mythology, the ship of Theseus slowly replaces individual pieces over time. Eventually, all of the pieces that comprise the ship are replaced, presenting a philosophical question: Is it still the same ship? One could argue the United States military’s approach to personnel policy reform through the continued use of incremental, patchwork policy updates resembles the ship of Theseus. The U.S. military continues to repair and maintain the current personnel system despite obvious evidence that an entirely new model is required to keep the system afloat. The military must imagine and implement a new career model that is no longer at odds with the modern family. The military’s ship of Theseus, despite all the changes, is still the same, and it is sinking.
Senior leaders, responsible for myriad requirements, should understand the challenges the current military career poses to the modern family. For this argument, a modern family consists of both parents working or seeking work, with or without children, as highlighted by a 2021 military demographic study. This model is fundamentally incongruent with a military career as it currently exists. There are three key areas on which the Department of Defense can focus its efforts to increase recruiting and retention efforts that encompass the modern family, lessening this incongruence. By focusing on family models, the national narrative, and barriers to change, the department can begin to solve the problems facing the all–volunteer force and their families, problems that have economic, demographic, sociological, psychological, technological, and national security consequences.
The Family Problem
Military service is incongruent with the modern family and this poses an enormous challenge to the future of the all-volunteer military. Since the creation of the volunteer military model, the form of the American family has fundamentally shifted. Throughout the late 1960s, when the all-volunteer force was being explored, 70 percent of all families in the United States had only the father of the household employed, according to a Pew study. By 2010, 60 percent of households were dual income. In fact, Pew found that “parents today are raising their children against a backdrop of increasingly diverse and, for many, constantly evolving family forms. By contrast, in 1960, the height of the post-World War II baby boom, there was one dominant family form.”
The all-volunteer force created 50 years ago didn’t consider the challenges that would be presented by evolving family forms, which include “the growing presence of married men and women in the enlisted ranks” being among the “more striking changes in the military since the end of the draft in 1973.” Dual-income families and women in the workplace were the exception, not the norm, then. These norms have changed drastically in the last 60 years, but the military career still does not accommodate widely documented new family models, including dual-income households or single-income households with children — over 41.8 percent of servicemembers having one child over the age of five. This was confirmed by Dr. Bernard Rostker , the former under secretary of defense for personnel and readiness, in 2015, when he said that “the military personnel system in place today is fundamentally the same one put into place after World War II.”
The growing presence of married servicemembers coupled with an outdated career model results in hardship to the servicemembers and families. More than 50 percent of servicemembers are married, which means that an updated career model and policies would impact the majority of the military. Military spouses face an unemployment rate three times the national average, while military service, for many, is unable to meet basic needs — in a 2023 RAND study, some servicemembers even reported taking on second jobs to provide for their families. In a recent Army exit survey, many soldiers cited impacts on family as the primary reason they were leaving the force. In fact, the impact to families and stability were cited as the biggest difference between the military and civilian lifestyles.
Creating a generation of servicemembers who are content in their military careers also means creating a more positive national narrative around military service. When the military is looking to improve recruiting, the organization should consider that only 50 percent of veterans would recommend military service to their children, with 79 percent of recruits having a family member who served.
Retention is the military’s primary focus as recruiting issues persist, and addressing the conflict between families and military service is the key to ensuring that retention and easing recruitment. Three-quarters of servicemembers are married by the eighth year of military service, while careers last an average length of 6.7 and 11 years for enlisted soldiers and officers, respectively. Therefore, creating a family-conscious career model to improve retention is critical. A 1980s military personnel study identified that the retention of experienced professionals relies upon “career incentives such as promotion opportunity, assignment flexibility, and the quality of family life.” Individuals should not have to choose between military service and economic security for their families, especially considering an aphorism commonly used by senior leaders: “We like to say that you recruit the member but retain the family.” If retaining the family is a priority for senior leaders, and retention is priority number one for the services, an updated career model that supports the modern family is necessary.
Most of the problems that servicemembers and their families face stem from a lack of stability in a military career. The continual relocation of servicemembers and families is out of step with scholarly work that shows that the desire for stability increases with age. There has been a steady decline in relocation across American society since the mid-1980s, which further confirms this desire for stability. However, in the military, a RAND study examining the frequency of senior-leader turnover revealed an increased frequency of military moves over time — the opposite of what people actually want.
This career volatility impacts servicemembers, their families, and military readiness. The military has known this for a long time; in 1958, Major General Weller and Colonel Collins identified the negative consequences of instability, saying that, “The individual is less competent and less confident. The family is adversely affected. The major damage, however, stems from the reduction in readiness.” Still, the military continues to operate with the outdated assumption that an endless supply of men and women are willing and able to join the armed forces and tolerate an unstable career path, even when demographics, generational preferences, and the most challenging recruiting environment since 1973 indicate otherwise.
The military can adapt by allowing servicemembers to explore different career paths once their initial service obligation expires. For example, servicemembers could agree to extended periods at a single location mixed with abbreviated assignments overseas or at challenging geographic locations stateside. Upon completing the abbreviated assignment, the servicemember would return to the original duty station where their families would have remained.
Servicemembers could opt for 48 months in a single location followed by a six- to 12-month assignment to a geographically challenging position. The servicemember would then rejoin their families and begin another 48-month assignment at their original location, allowing the family to remain at a single geographic location for the majority of their career. Alternatively, the military could formalize remote work positions, especially during staff tours and resident professional military education. This would allow servicemembers to remain in one location for a full tour of duty and travel only when required. If the COVID-19 pandemic revealed anything, it is the ability of technology to increase quality of life and remove unnecessary stressors in the lives of servicemembers and their families. These kind of changes will also be necessary to compete with the private sector as companies shift toward permanent hybrid work options and four-day work weeks.
The shift of a military career towards something that more closely resembles that in the civilian sector should come as no surprise. In the 1977 Armed Forces and Society journal, the sociologist Charles Moskos proposed two models to explain why individuals decide to join the military — institutional and occupational. Moskos argued that the military was moving away from an institutional model, which “is legitimated in terms of values and norms, a purpose transcending individual self-interest in favor of a presumed higher good,” toward an occupational model, which “is legitimated in terms of the marketplace, prevailing monetary rewards for equivalent competencies.” Moskos’s occupational model matches recent Joint Advertising Market Research and Studies futures survey data that identifies pay as the top factor individuals consider when contemplating military service. Whether the U.S. military knew it or not, the moment the all-volunteer force was created and conscription ended, the U.S. military became what Moskos describes as an “occupational model.” This means that the military, like companies in the civilian sector, needs to increase opportunities for stability where possible.
Troop to Task
The other challenge facing military families is the stress endured by service members as increasing global military requirements are met with continually declining personnel levels. These stressful experiences not only impact the family in real time, but will also impact the narrative of veterans when they exit the service. Some may believe this problem can be mitigated using the national guard or reserves. The Secretary of the Army has said that without improvements in current active-duty personnel levels “members of the National Guard and Army Reserve will need to be put on active duty.” The problem with this solution is that reserve units face the same challenges and impacts on their families as full-time servicemembers. The increased use of reserves forces may ignore how reservists balance families, full-time careers, and part-time military service. Further, as demonstrated by the Navy, the reserves are also struggling to meet their recruiting goals. Reserves, in this case, are not the answer.
Similar to budgetary “Night Court” proceedings, each service could instead review every job the military is required to fill and remove 3 percent, only keeping the absolutely critical positions. Too often, there are jobs that are left empty in each military branch or the joint force due to a lack of personnel. Instead of accepting “close enough” when trying to match people to positions, jobs can be removed to account for the 2 percent decline in personnel levels listed in the fiscal year 2023 National Defense Authorization Act and recent military recruiting shortages. This provides a more realistic goal for the jobs that require filling and the people available to fill those jobs. Joint Chiefs would then be able to articulate, with greater detail, current personnel levels to satisfy the requests of combatant commands.
Use Every Tool Lawmakers Provided
The military could also fully implement the authorities provided in the fiscal year 2019 National Defense Authorization Act. During Panel 5 at the 2022 Reagan National Defense Forum, Congressman Mike Gallagher from Wisconsin’s eighth district asked why authorities provided in the fiscal year 2019 National Defense Authorization Act have yet to be implemented. In particular, he focused on direct hiring authorities that would allow the military to bring in people with specific skillsets from the private sector into military service at a higher rank. Such an authority would be helpful in meeting current cyber shortfalls and in other areas where the military is having issues retaining enough qualified personnel. Given current personnel shortages, the military should use every tool at their disposal to meet them.
Failing to implement the authorities provided by lawmakers also implicitly tells people currently serving that the status quo — a service in which they and their families see a need for improvement — is acceptable. If the military is looking to create a more positive narrative and increase retention, fully implementing the authorities provided to improve the careers of those serving is a great place to start. Younger generations are concerned with “job security and advancement,” and the authorities provided allow both with greater advancement through the use of merit reorder and higher rank and compensation through the use of a temporary promotion, known as a brevet promotion. For example, the Marine Corps has yet to use brevet promotion authority, which allows for a temporary promotion to a higher rank to include increased pay. The Army has so far implemented it for geographically isolated and challenging locations, such as Fort Irwin, California, using higher rank and pay for specific positions that are historically challenging to fill.
Barriers to Change, No More Incrementalism
The military’s incremental approach to personnel reform is no longer able to keep pace with the civilian sector or the world around it. A 2021 RAND study determined that the military opts for deliberate incrementalism when implementing officer reform. History, too, reveals opposition to personnel reform even when initiated by the secretary of defense. Current personnel reform initiatives, such as the Marine Corps’ Talent Management 2030, which includes direct hiring authority and other sweeping personnel reforms, have faced opposition from retired and active-duty servicemembers. The incrementalist approach combined with this resistance to change has resulted in an inefficient system that has persisted since World War II.
Without redesigning the military career to fit an occupational model and accommodate the modern family, political leaders will be left with a withering military unable to provide the requisite personnel levels to satisfy national security after five decades of success with a volunteer system. The Department of Defense and lawmakers are making changes, such as military licensing and a recent hiring act, to address these issues, but a recent memorandum indicates that the military “still [has] much more to do.” In combat, the military uses every weapon to achieve success. If people are the most important asset, why is the military not using every tool possible to improve the current personnel shortages?
The suggested reforms outlined would be no small undertaking. These would mean a fundamental redesign of the military career requiring the reduction, if not elimination, of relocation where possible. The second recommendation would require the services to review every position and remove the jobs the services no longer require. The third would cost nothing, but would require the military implement the authorities granted to the services by lawmakers. All of these recommendations seek to minimize costs as personnel costs continue to increase.
None of these changes would involve statutory requirements; the Department of Defense could implement these suggested changes tomorrow if they so desire. Although numerical superiority does not necessarily equate to military superiority, maintaining current personnel levels to avoid falling below the 1 million active-duty threshold, which has not occurred since 1941, is critical to ensure the military remains able to successfully achieve national security objectives.
The ongoing use of policy patchwork to improve the military career will yield limited capability and will require long-term upkeep. Ultimately, this will jeopardize the military’s ability to achieve national security objectives successfully. Long-term upkeep will also divert critical resources in the form of time, money, and personnel away from more pressing matters. Instead, the Department of Defense should build a new career model that prioritizes the modern family, promotes stability, and allows for greater advancement. This will require the support of lawmakers and senior leaders, both civilian and military, to adapt the military to an occupational model. The military must stop replacing pieces of the military career model and build anew. The future military career will look different from the past if the military is serious about recruiting the service member and retaining the family. Like the ship of Theseus, if pieces of the ship are continually replaced, it will yield nothing but the same ship in the end.
Ryan Pallas is an active-duty Marine Corps officer who has completed tours at Miramar, CA; Yuma, AZ; Kaneohe Bay, HI; and Quantico, VA. He currently serves as a commandant of the Marine Corps Strategist Fellow at the Schar School of Policy and Government in Arlington, VA. Disclaimer: The views are those of the author and do not reflect the Marine Corps, Department of Defense, or any other government agency.