New Research from UMass Amherst Sociologist Explores Why Military Service Members Marry So Much Younger than Average Americans

Jennifer Lundquist

AMHERST, Mass. – While numerous studies have shown that the marriage rate among military service members is much higher than civilians of the same age, new research from a sociologist at the University of Massachusetts Amherst has found specific reasons that lead these young men and women to make this important decision.

In a study published in the latest issue of the Journal of Marriage and Family, Vol. 76, Issue 5, Jennifer Lundquist argues that financial considerations and structural conditions of modern military service such as deployment to war and the military’s demand for frequent geographic relocation leads to personnel policies that rely on families to make these conditions more bearable for service members. These policies are part of a larger institutional culture that directly and indirectly encourages marriage among its recruits.

“When you look at marriage rates in the military it’s like going back in time to the 1950s,” says Lundquist, an associate dean and associate professor of sociology at UMass Amherst. “Marriage is deliberately made to be compatible with military life because this is an important way to retain personnel. The conditions of military employment also lead naturally to marriage. There’s stable employment, comprehensive family benefits, and economic mobility in an entry-level job. That’s not a common job market condition encountered by most high school graduates. I would argue that military service offers a path to class mobility that most working class youth lack.”

Lundquist, along with Zhun Xu from Renmin University of China, reported the findings of nearly 80 interviews conducted over a period of 11 months with individuals associated with two American Army installations in Germany as part of a research project sponsored by the Alexander von Humboldt Foundation.

The interviews showed that the threat of geographical separation due to war deployment and relocation transfers were also repeatedly tied to early marriage. Many soldiers discussed marital decisions as meeting an emotional need for stability in the face of this unknown.

“By far the most common pretext for marriage in the military revealed by the interview data relates to the Permanent Change of Station process, which occurs every two to three years,” Lundquist explains in the study. “To deal with the globalized nature of U.S. peacekeeping, the military must offer its labor force a way to include families in the face of an imposed nomadic lifestyle. The military’s solution is to incorporate families in their entirety, and it pays the full relocation costs for each family member—as long as they are married. This policy causes people to marry earlier than they had planned to, and sometimes to people they would not otherwise have married. It also happens to be a crucial way for the military to ensure a portable support system for its employees.”

Lundquist also believes that her findings downplay the widely-held belief that service members most often marry to receive housing incentives.

“While previous explanations for high military marriage rates have focused primarily on the incentives provided by housing benefits for married couples, housing benefits are but a small piece of the puzzle,” Lundquist says. “I found that housing benefits actually played more of an escape role for enlistees than a financial one. Most of the narratives focused on the fact that barracks afford far less privacy than a private residence and that barracks are subject to rules and scrutiny by one’s superiors.”

Lundquist conducted the research as a guest researcher at the University of Mannheim and guest lecturer with a military-affiliated institution that provides educational classes to U.S. active duty soldiers and family members stationed in Europe. Through her contacts in the local community, she sampled respondents associated with two different Army installations in Germany.

Active duty enlisted soldiers comprised half the sample, with unmarried partners, spouses, and adult children comprising the other half. The average age of the respondents was early to mid-20s. A slight majority of the interviewees (58 percent) were men; most were either African-American (40 percent) or white (45 percent); the third largest ethnic group was Latina/Latino (12 percent). Of the soldiers, most were enlisted, not officers. Enlisted soldiers comprise 80 percent of the military and do not enter with college degrees like officers do. Most soldiers were relatively junior, meaning that they were in low to middle military ranks and had been on active duty for three to four years. The average age at marriage was 22 years old, and all of the soldiers had previous experience in stateside military service.

“The biggest policy implication of our research relates to all families, not just military families,” Lundquist concludes in the report. “Some policymakers and family advocates have argued that the government should promote marital formation. Indeed, for the past decade, the federal government has funded the Healthy Marriage Initiative, spending $150 million a year. But on the basis of the military example, marriage is widespread in part due to stable, decent-paying jobs and the availability of health care and education benefits to family members. Given growing class inequality, precarious underemployment, and long-term unemployment, perhaps there are some aspects of the military employment model that could be extended to all U.S. youth.”

“Better understanding the transferability of military employment dynamics to civilian contexts may shed light on how to support more stable transitions to adulthood for American youth,” she says.

 

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