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All-Volunteer U.S. Military Still Offers a Pathway for Young Men

Chapel Hill, NC—April 21, 2010For many Americans coming out of high school, college, military service and the workforce represent the primary avenues of opportunity. With rising costs and stiff academic requirements, college tends to draw students from a relatively advantaged background. The all-volunteer military service also provides life opportunities to the “less advantaged” through access to material and educational benefits.

However, apart from patriotic values, it is unclear why young men continue to choose the military, with its inherent risks of combat, instead of college or the labor force. New research findings published in Social Science Quarterly address this question. Data are based on the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health, with 6,900 young males between the ages of 18 and 27, from high schools across the U.S.

Lead author Glen H. Elder, Jr., a Faculty Fellow of the Carolina Population Center and Research Professor of Sociology at The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, speaks of the attraction of the military for these young people, “The military offers enhanced life chances for them — especially when they lack the resources for college, both personal and socioeconomic, and view the military as a more promising pathway than entry-level opportunities in the workforce.”

These enlistees tend to cluster in the middle range on cognitive ability, but rank below average on family income, and have not done as well as other youth in academics. They report friends in the military, but have minimal social support from family and school, and come with a history of contact sports and involvement in fights. This aggressive behavior is especially common among young men with poor grades in secondary school.

The study does not address the long-term effects of military service, but the evidence suggests that military service tends to minimize social inequalities. Further research will tell whether the pathway from relative disadvantage to military service defines a “positive turning point in life chances” for this generation.

This study is published in the June issue of Social Science Quarterly. To request a full-text version of this article please contact

To view an abstract of this article please click here.

"Pathways to the All-Volunteer Military." Glen H. Elder, Jr., Social Science Quarterly; Published Online: April 6, 2010 (DOI: 10.1111/j.1540-6237.2010.00702.x).

Glen H. Elder, Jr., PhD is a Howard W. Odum Research Professor Emeritus of Sociology at The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, as well as a Fellow of the Carolina Population Center. He has studied the lives of men who have served in the military, with a focus on WWII veterans, for over thirty years. He is an author of numerous books, including Children of the Great Depression: Social Change in Life Experience (1999). He can be reached for questions at

About the Journal: Social Science Quarterly is nationally recognized as one of the top journals in the social sciences, and publishes current research on a broad range of topics including political science, sociology, economics, history, social work, geography, international studies, and women's studies. SSQ is the journal of the Southwestern Social Science Association.

“Good coverage of contemporary social questions from a research standpoint.”—Magazines for Libraries

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