Reigniting the Veteran Marketing Machine: To Solve the Recruiting Crisis, Think Generationally


Editor’s Note: This article was written in response to our unofficial support for the Department of Defense’s innovation challenge for talent management. We want to help with this effort and have asked for original, creative ideas that reconsider the status quo, shake widely held assumptions, and take on the conventional wisdom about recruitment and retention. 

Generational change happens similar to how Ernest Hemingway described going bankrupt: “gradually and then suddenly.” We can call this the “OK Boomer” effect, where a specific event — or in this case, a meme — makes it obvious that there is a new generation on the scene. Paradoxically, although such moments command widespread attention, institutions rarely reassess their strategies until the generational shift negatively impacts them. They may change tactics — moving advertising to TikTok from Facebook, for example — but they don’t look for fundamental shifts in the strategic landscape until they experience a setback or failure.

This dynamic is at the core of the recruiting crisis. The rise of Generation Z signaled a massive change to the recruiting landscape — for the first time in the history of the all-volunteer force, the military is recruiting an entire generation that has few, if any, family or community links to the military. Gone are the days when recruiting benefited from organic interactions young people had with veterans: a grandparent who fought in World War II, for example, or a coach who served in Germany during the Cold War. The veteran marketing machine, long a crucial engine for recruitment, has broken down.

Many analysts have commented on elements of this, such as the broader military-civilian gap or the distinctive features of Generation Z. But most prescriptions have thus far been too surface-level — changes to marketing content — or narrow in focus — increasing access to Junior Reserve Officers’ Training Corps. Other analysts have specifically called for a greater role for veterans in recruitment, but thus far there has been no comprehensive strategy put forward for how to do this. 



How can the military radically increase the extent to which young Americans interact with veterans? As suggested by the framework developed by Hahrie Han and Jae Yeon Kim, it will require addressing challenges in both distribution and design. Right now, too many communities lack an organized veteran presence, and too few veterans’ organizations have business models that make engagement with young Americans a sustainable mission.

To address these challenges, the Department of Defense should partner with the Department of Veterans Affairs and the Corporation for National and Community Service to launch a one-time, five-year initiative with three goals in mind: first, incubating new veterans’ organizations that connect veterans with young people in their communities; second, scaling up existing organizations that already do this; and finally, enabling the largest veterans’ organizations, such as the American Legion, to test new, sustainable business models that are community-centric. Absent this sort of catalyst, interactions between young people and veterans will continue to diminish, and recruiters will face an even greater challenge connecting with future generations.

Veterans as Recruiting Force Multipliers

When the military transitioned to the all-volunteer force, marketing became a critical function. In this, veterans played a unique role. Most strikingly, more than seven in ten recruits have a veteran in their family. Parents and family members exert significant influence over young people’s career decisions, and social influencers also seem to play a role as well. So having veterans in one’s family or in the neighborhood will increase the probability that a young person considers the military as a career and raise the appeal of serving. 

Veterans are also much more likely than the average American to recommend military service. A 2022 study by the Veterans and Citizens Initiative found that veterans were almost twice as likely to advise a close friend or the child of a close friend to join the military. A RAND Corporation study has also noted that the presence of young veterans in an area makes it easier to recruit. 

To understand why this is so crucial, consider the distinction between marketing and sales in the commercial world. The purpose of marketing is to drive high-propensity leads into the sales funnel and to position sales teams to successfully close the deal. Although the military has a robust marketing budget, in today’s attention economy, where there are questionable returns to digital advertising and where military personnel are concentrated in areas near bases, recruiting (sales) needs people physically present in a community able to raise awareness about service and point young people toward this as a career. Veterans have long played this crucial marketing role. 

When the military transitioned to the all-volunteer force, there was a massive marketing machine of over 25 million veterans — 15 percent of the total population and over 40 percent of the adult male population — at work in communities across the country. Beneath the surface and largely overlooked, this engine served as a recruiting force multiplier for decades. Cracks started to appear years ago, however, as generational shifts reshaped the veteran and community landscape. Today’s recruiting crisis shows how this machine has broken down in fundamental ways. 

Generational Shifts

The veteran marketing machine has broken down due to the combined impact of three generational shifts. First, veterans have declined precipitously as a proportion of the population while also becoming more removed from today’s youth. Second, although more research is needed on this point, it appears likely that the constellation of veterans organizations has also become smaller and more remote. Finally, there has been a broader erosion of associational spaces across the country, meaning there are fewer organic interactions between young Americans and veterans through clubs, faith institutions, and other groups. 

The change in Americans’ familiarity with veterans has been dramatic. A 2011 study from Pew Research showed that while 76 percent of Americans over the age of 65 said they had an immediate family member who served in the military, only 33 percent of those between the ages of 18 and 29 said the same. This is the result of a drop in the veteran population from 28.6 million in 1980 to under 18 million today during a time when the overall adult population has grown from approximately 170 million to over 258 million. This trend is set to continue, with the veteran population projected to decline to 13.6 million by 2048. 

Although there is much less data available on the veteran civil society landscape, it seems likely that a related and similar shift has occurred. Over the past decade, the two largest veteran service organizations, the American Legion and the Veterans of Foreign Wars, have lost approximately 700,000 and 200,000 members, respectively. Studies by the Center for a New American Security found that the number of organizations that serve veterans and the military community peaked in 2011 at around 45,000 and has since declined to approximately 38,000. New organizations in this space, including all those that were founded after 9/11, are also much less likely to have a physical presence in communities in the form of an office building, post, or other real estate. Though these new organizations have other strengths, the result is still a stark reduction in the extent to which veterans are organized and physically present at the local level. 

These trends in the veteran space both reflect and are compounded by the broader erosion of America’s social fabric. As noted in the recent Surgeon General’s advisory on social connection and loneliness, Americans have smaller social circles, spend less time with other people, and are less connected to community institutions. This increased isolation and social fracture mean that even if there are veterans in a community, and even if they are organized, it’s still less likely that young people will encounter them. 

For many if not most young Americans, veterans have become an abstract community, encountered on television, film, or social media, if at all. With fewer organic conversations happening between veterans and those who could potentially serve, the marketing burden for service now falls on the military itself.

A critical element in solving the recruiting crisis, then, is to reinvigorate the veteran marketing machine. Since the number of veterans will most likely continue to decline, this means the government should make an effort to dramatically increase the extent to which veterans’ organizations engage with young Americans. It will not be possible to recreate the world that existed a half-century ago. Instead, the military should consider new models for engagement that resonate with both younger veterans and young Americans, two populations that are increasingly diverse. 


Investing more resources can help spur innovation and fuel the creation of new models. Recent history provides an example of how this can happen. In 2006, hedge fund manager David Gelbaum established a $105 million donor-advised fund (later increased by an additional $138 million) with the California Community Foundation. The purpose of this initiative, subsequently known as the Iraq-Afghanistan Deployment Impact Fund, was to support the needs of post-9/11 military servicemembers, their families, and veterans. Gelbaum’s investment catalyzed explosive growth in the veterans’ organizational landscape and in many ways helped shape the field as it exists today. Though he was far from the only donor supporting the post-9/11 military and veteran community, the size, timing, and focused nature of his investment moved the entire field.

A comparably catalytic investment is needed today to focus the veterans’ field on community engagement, particularly with young people. Ideally, the philanthropic sector would step forward to provide this investment. Philanthropy has the resources and experience needed to fund transformational experiments by veterans’ organizations and scale up successful models. But at this point, no such program has emerged from philanthropy.. 

This leaves government as the only institution with the resources and incentives to spur innovation across the veterans’ field. To invigorate a 21st-century veteran marketing machine, the Department of Defense should partner with the Department of Veterans Affairs and Corporation for National and Community Service to launch a one-time, five-year innovation grant initiative. The initiative would have three lines of investment: incubating new veterans’ organizations focused on youth engagement; scaling up existing organizations that have strong connections with young people; and enabling established veterans’ organizations to test new, institutional business models, such as new physical and digital infrastructure. The Department of Defense, with its responsibility for recruiting, would oversee this program. The Department of Veterans Affairs, with its existing relationships, and the Corporation for National and Community Service, with its valuable expertise in engaging young Americans, would serve as crucial partners. 

Such an initiative could harness the strengths of existing veterans’ organizations as well. Many newer ones, such as Team Red, White and Blue, More Perfect Union, and Team Rubicon, are digital natives, have a more diverse membership, and run programs that connect veterans and nonveterans. These features position them well to engage effectively with young Americans. But more resources are needed to grow these organizations to scale and to embed them in communities. Meanwhile, older veterans’ organizations have scale and a presence in communities across the country but need to find new models that have greater appeal for younger veterans and young Americans in general. These could include chapters that offer childcare, health and wellness options, and e-games, as well as better integration with online platforms. 

A new grant initiative should include a robust evaluation component, with a focus on what influences young Americans’ propensity to serve. In order to avoid a situation where the Department of Defense becomes a major long-term funder of veterans’ organizations, this initiative should terminate after year five. The only residual assets would be devoted to tracking and assessing results. 

Moreover, this initiative would not be intended to supplant the work veterans’ organizations already do on issues ranging from ending veteran suicide to ensuring healthy transitions from service. But most organizations can continue such work while also dramatically scaling up the extent to which they build meaningful and durable relationships with young people. 

The roots of the current recruiting crisis are generational in nature and, as such, require a long-term approach. A vibrant veteran marketing machine, built for the 21st century, depends on connection, specifically robust veteran engagement with young Americans. The Department of Defense, working with the Department of Veterans Affairs and the Corporation for National and Community Service, is uniquely positioned to make this possible. 



Dan is principal at Polarization Risk Advisory, a research and strategy consulting firm focused on helping institutions manage risks from polarization. Dan is a former Army officer. 

Polarization Risk Advisory does not currently have a financial relationship with any of the organizations, governmental or non-governmental, mentioned in this article or any that might be eligible for funding under the grant initiative proposed in this article, though it may enter into such arrangements in the future. 

Image: U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 1st Class Stephane Belcher