Talent management in the Department of Defense has received a great deal of critical attention over the last few years, but much of this thinking has centered on how the military’s structure, culture, and incentives drive individual retention. While seemingly exhaustive, this discourse has largely overlooked a profound generational shift: the sharp increase of dual-professional couples.
The problem is simple: 78 percent of the millennial workforce is in a dual-professional relationship, and it is reasonable to assume that the trend will increase with subsequent generations. This generational trait is a significant departure from baby boomers—who constitute much of the senior leadership of the military—of whom only 47 percent are in a dual-professional relationship. Unsurprisingly, the most significant implication of this change is that millennials approach career and family choices differently than previous generations, and there is growing discussion in journalism, academia, and the private sector about how organizations can adapt to meet these generational changes. Unfortunately, this discussion is lacking within the DoD, and the military is structurally and culturally unprepared to accommodate dual-career couples who increasingly prioritize shared career success.
First, the military’s assignment system presents structural impediments to supporting the careers of dual-professional couples. For same-service, dual-military couples, the services have had no choice but to build systems that identify and support co-location of these service members. However, co-location is the only stated assignment consideration, and dual-military couples must often choose between co-location and a competitive assignment. For dual-professional couples with only one service member the situation is worse. There is no institutional consideration given to a spouse’s career, while frequent assignment changes present significant challenges to progression in all but the most portable careers. Finally, even for those with a portable career, assignment options present significant geographic limitations, with few options near the country’s urban centers that are home to the country’s major corporations and universities. (This is particularly true of the Army after the base realignment and closures (BRAC) of the 1990s, which closed the likes of Fort Dix, New Jersey; Fort Devens, Massachusetts; and Fort Ord, California.) The effect of these structural challenges is that military spouses are unemployed at higher rates and earn less than their civilian counterparts. Couples who desire to maintain two competitive careers have far more options to do so outside the military. It would, however, be a mistake to think this an inevitable sacrifice that comes with military service.
While programs to support families and more flexible career options are a necessary step forward, they will not have the desired effect until they enable service members to have competitive careers for continued promotion and command, not simply the opportunity to continue to wear the uniform.
One might easily reach this flawed conclusion because the military culture reinforces an outdated social model in which the single-earner household is the norm. The most fundamental manifestation of this problem is that non-military spouses are officially termed “dependents,” which provides an obvious indication of the military’s expectations of a military spouse’s role. Moreover, there are significant financial implications to support this line of thinking. Service members receive additional compensation for having a spouse or child (regardless of the spouse’s professional status), while recurring initiatives have attempted to strip dual-military couples of the same compensation as a cost-saving measure. (To save time, see here for a good argument for why allowances—including those modified for dependents—should be viewed as part of a total compensation package.) Finally, though difficult to prove without a targeted study, across the services there is a cultural expectation that in dual-professional, heterosexual couples the female spouse’s career will be secondary. In a male-dominated culture, this should hardly be a contentious statement, but it is an important one: the military’s attitude toward women in the workplace is inherently tied to its understanding of dual-professional couples.
In recognition of changing norms, the DoD has begun in recent years to implement policies that are more supportive of dual-professional couples. Changes to the retirement system, expanded child care, improved parental leave policies, career intermission, and geographic stabilization are all important steps in the right direction. Unfortunately, the culture has not caught up with the policies. Two of the most important programs—maternity leave and career intermission—are beset by a major inconsistency between intent and application that continues to hamper the efficacy of these policies. While they provide more flexible career options, they fail to offer a reasonable expectation of continued competitiveness for promotion and command. In the case of pregnancy and maternity leave, women suffer, at best, from the stigma of time away from work, and at worst from losing valuable operational time required for qualifications and promotion (as in submarines or aviation). In the career intermission program, there is no policy that ensures successful reintegration after intermission. Anecdotally, there is also quiet consensus that career intermission is a career-ending decision; if you wish to remain competitive, commanders and career managers will tell you as much. While programs to support families and more flexible career options are a necessary step forward, they will not have the desired effect until they enable service members to have competitive careers for continued promotion and command, not simply the opportunity to continue to wear the uniform.
Given the need to balance adapting to demographic changes with operational requirements that cannot always cater to individual needs, talent management is vital. Despite the military’s meritocratic and competitive self-image, there persists in it an egalitarian definition of talent management that amounts to the idea that everyone has a talent. While matching skills and experience to requirements is important, it is insufficient. In the context of generational shifts around work and marriage, deliberate management of top talent may be more urgent (though the Army’s definition of talent explicitly rejects this idea). Beyond simply having greater percentages of millennials in dual-professional couples, recent studies of income inequality and assortative mating have shown that highly educated and high-income millennials—both traits which may be good proxies for talent—are increasingly intermarrying. While further research is required to confirm this, it seems reasonable to assume that highly talented millennials in the military are also more likely to be in relationships with similarly talented spouses (both military and civilian), with concomitant pressure on maintaining compatible, high-impact careers. Without undermining the other aspects of talent management, we must also reckon with the idea that there are measurably high-performing service members who, in the interests of the force, should be retained for command and senior leadership, and for whom career management through a more personalized assignment process is necessary.
To address the challenge of retaining service members in dual-professional couples, the military needs to take concrete steps to understand the problem, upgrade existing programs, and selectively institute new programs. First, the DoD should study this issue in a targeted manner to test the validity of this article’s assumptions and the applicability of similar studies outside the military. Given the tension between longstanding organizational structures and cultural expectations, a common picture of the problem will be essential for productive policymaking.
The military must address the fact that career decision-making among millennials increasingly revolves around shared career incentives.
Second, the military needs to upgrade existing policies designed to support working families and flexible career choices. These programs must be viable options for a competitive—not simply continued—career. The career intermission program requires control measures to ensure that career managers and commanders can assist and track service members who take this option, allowing for long-term career success. More rigorous control measures (like guaranteeing assignment after career intermission) would offer confidence that service members can effectively re-enter a desirable career track and combat deeply-held institutional prejudices against the viability of such programs. Additionally, the services should offer career intermission without benefits and the accompanying service obligation, i.e. a return to service within a defined period after separation. (Recent efforts by the Navy to this end represent an important step in the right direction that the other services should emulate.) While many might reject this proposal as hard to project and control, it would likely retain a significant number of people who are not ready to commit to up to nine years of additional service after a career intermission. Similarly, women need to remain competitive while having children. In the operational force, pregnancy and maternity leave are often not possible in tandem with maintaining operational qualifications, but have no bearing on a woman’s long-term potential. The ability to define clearly a competitive career plan, with the flexibility to move year groups and define future assignments, would help alleviate this problem. Though an extreme change within military culture, mandating and matching paternity and maternity leave would also likely mitigate the stigma for women, even if that meant allowing less total leave. Above all, if service members know they can use available career flexibility options to remain competitive for continued promotion and command, the programs will succeed and the culture will follow.
Ultimately, retaining dual-professional couples on a broad scale will require the development of additional programs to ensure the military retains and develops personnel in a deliberate manner. This effort should consider options that have already received attention, like flexible career and promotion options, extended assignment to a single duty station, and lateral entry. Solving the geographic challenges for professional, non-military spouses is also critical. Reconsidering BRAC closures near major urban centers and collaborating with top corporations to create opportunities at more remote installations may create opportunities for professional spouses. Finally, senior leadership must acknowledge consistent executive-level review as a critical component of personnel management, matching best practices in the private sector. On an organizational level, senior leader involvement would reinforce the importance of these programs to ensure that the organizational culture adapts, and on an individual level, executive-level review has sometimes shown itself to be the only effective check on a rigid and bureaucratic personnel system to retain talent at the highest and lowest levels.
As time passes, shifting generational norms increasingly come into tension with military culture and policy. Initial attempts to tackle some of the attendant challenges to this change have focused on individual incentives, however, the military must address the fact that career decision-making among millennials increasingly revolves around shared career incentives. Effectively adapting to this change by understanding the problem, upgrading existing programs, and building new programs will have a positive impact on the health of the force. It would be easy to view this as a call for special treatment or catering to needy millennials. However, failing to adapt will make it increasingly difficult to retain many talented service members in future and will make a single-earner household a de facto criterion for a successful career model. Perhaps more troubling, lack of action is a choice that in the future may lead to an inability to retain a large number of top performers and a military culture that is less than representative of American culture.
Tom Barron is a 2018 Shawn Brimley Next Generation National Security Fellow at the Center for a New American Security.
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