By Sabrina Tavernise
A smaller share of Americans serve in the armed forces than at any other time since the era between World War I and World War II, a new low that has led to a growing gap between people in uniform and the civilian population, according to a new survey.
At any given time in the past decade, less than 1 percent of the U.S. population has been on active military duty, compared with 9 percent of Americans who were in uniform in World War II. As a result, there is a growing generation gap, with younger Americans far less likely than older ones to have a family member who served.
The survey, by the Pew Research Center, found that while more than three-quarters of Americans over the age of 50 have an immediate family member who served in the military, among Americans ages 18 to 29, the share is only a third. About 6 in 10 of those ages 30 to 49 have a family member who served.
Part of the difference is years. Older people are more likely to have a spouse or a grown child, giving them more opportunities to have a family member who served. But the age gap persists, even when controlling for this, according to the survey.
The result is a military far less connected to the rest of society, researchers said, a condition that some academics have said might not bode well for the future of military-civilian relations (the military is run by civilians). Others have warned that less connection between the military and the rest of society could lead to less-informed decisions about whether to go to war, because conflicts and the people who fight them are not part of most people's everyday lives.
"What we have is an armed services that's at war and a public that's not very engaged," said Paul Taylor, executive vice president of the Pew Research Center. "Typically when our nation is at war, it's a front-burner issue for the public. But with these post-9/11 wars, which are now past the 10-year mark, the public has been paying less and less attention."
A principal change has been the phasing out of the draft in 1973. For adults older than 50 who said they have family members who served in the military, those members are likely to have served before the draft ended.
Some parts of the population are more likely than others to have a service member or veteran in their family. Whites are more likely than blacks - 68 percent versus 59 percent. Hispanics are much less likely than either, with just 30 percent saying they have a family member who served.
Pew's findings were drawn from two surveys - one of 2,003 adults conducted Sept. 1-15 using land lines and cellphones, and another of 1,639 military veterans conducted by telephone and online from July 28 to Sept. 4.