Wisdom and experience meet youth and exuberance, or that’s what the US Air Force hopes as it attempts to meet recruiting goals by raising the maximum age limit for entrance. To a greater extent than the other services, the Air Force has a range of required skills, technical and nontechnical, that is broad and deep. A 41-year-old former municipal police officer would bring a valuable background of experience to an Air Force security forces squadron. The new accession age of 42 years will apply to both officer and enlisted recruits.
Recruiting Seasoned Americans for the Military Makes Sense
There is wisdom in seeking older, more experienced Air Force and Space Force service candidates. They are more likely to be out of the competition with Wendy’s. Older candidates belong to a demographic that remembers the 9-11 Islamic terrorist attacks and probably are unlikely to embrace a readiness-defeating woke agenda. Currently, expectations for the number of older recruits are modest. As Air & Space Forces (AFA) Magazine explained, “The Department of the Air Force expects to add about 50 more recruits per year after lifting its maximum age limit for initial accession from 39 years old to 42 on Oct. 24, the latest in a long series of efforts to expand the talent pool in the midst of an ongoing recruiting shortage.”
According to a Department of Defense (DOD) press release on recruiting and retention numbers through August 2023, “This fiscal year has proven to be the toughest recruitment year for the Military Services since the inception of the All-volunteer Force.” The numbers reflect the US Air Force active-duty recruiting missed its goal of 25,138 by 2,957, recruiting only 24,910 or 88.2% of the objective. The Air Force Reserve Components did worse. The Air National Guard set the bar at 10,486 but recruited only 60.7% or 6,366. Statistics for the Air Force Reserve were only slightly better – achieving 67.8% of the goal of 7,167 or 4,860 accessions.
“Hopeful Airmen and Guardians between 17 and 42 are now eligible to join the two branches… Flying officer positions, which the Air Force calls ‘rated’ positions, like pilots, combat systems officers, and air battle managers, still have an age limit of 33,” Patty Nieberg said, writing for Task & Purpose. Raising the eligibility age for entering the Air and Space Forces is not viewed as applying lower standards since older recruits still have to meet physical and mental acuity criteria. The value of honed skills that come with experience is, first and foremost, that older enlisted and officer service members, when facing challenges and problematic situations, are not seeing them for the very first time. There is the risk, of course, that they will make the same mistakes again, but maybe not.
Societal Challenges Need to Be Overcome
Whether the target number for enticing older recruiting candidates is 50 or 500, there are challenges facing recruiting for military service generally. Brigadier General Christopher Amrhein, addressing the press in September, explained the societal hurdles Air and Space Force recruiters encounter. He told reporters, “Still, officials say the most pressing challenge to recruitment is a lack of familiarity with military service among Americans. Propensity to join the US military is at just 10 percent, while 52 percent of young Americans have never considered military service – a historic high,” according to the AFA publication. Yet, it’s more than simply “familiarity” with military service. It’s more a matter of familiarity with a positive impression of military service. That last part is where the armed forces are in trouble.
To that end, raising the recruiting eligibility age while keeping high standards may have an added benefit to addressing Amrhein’s observation. Older recruits have had exposure to valuable life-learning experiences with potentially a favorable impression of military service. Despite being a new entry, older service members are in a position to mentor peers and older non-commissioned and commissioned officers alike. With an expectation of bringing on board only 50 recruits per year, the recruiting needle will not be moved much. But it’s a start.
The views expressed are those of the author and not of any other affiliation.