Stratification and Labor Market Dynamics in the Military

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Stratification and Labor Market Dynamics in the Military. When the United States ended military conscription in 1973 and moved to an All‐Volunteer Force, some commentators suggested that labor market dynamics had been substituted for civic virtue as a means of manning the force. In fact, such dynamics have always affected the composition and rank structure of the military. An understanding of internal and segmented labor markets helps explain variations in the social composition of the armed forces.

Military Forces as Internal Labor Markets.

Neoclassical economics sees employment decisions controlled by labor supply and demand. The internal labor market perspective, by contrast, attributes variations in employment to organizations that control access to their labor force, start people at entry‐level jobs, and promote them to higher‐level positions along prescribed career paths. These processes characterize the armed forces.

In obtaining the bulk of enlisted personnel through conscription (e.g., during World War I and from World War II to 1973), the government controlled this market, drafting some people for military service and channeling others to essential civilian occupations through deferments and exemptions. Under volunteer conditions, the forces use recruiting resources to gain personnel with the characteristics they seek in competition with other potential employers. Within the force, the promotion system determines who moves up and who leaves the military. The services operate as independent internal labor markets, each recruiting at the entry level and promoting personnel internally. A person in one service is unlikely to transfer to another for career advancement. Each of the services can be regarded as a two‐tiered internal labor market, with separate tracks and desired characteristics, entry points, and career structures for enlisted personnel and for commissioned officers.

The 85 percent of the force who enter military service as recruits (usually as high school graduates currently, and most commonly from working‐class backgrounds) will serve in the enlisted ranks of that service, and some may progress to the highest noncommissioned officer grades. The 15 percent of personnel who come into the service as officers are most commonly commissioned as second lieutenants or ensigns through accession programs currently associated with receipt of a college degree (ROTC or the service academies) and are likely to come from middle‐class backgrounds. If they are successful and choose to remain in service, they will progress through the ranks. Otherwise they will return to civilian life.

The Military Workforce as a Segmented Labor Market.

Internal labor markets are related to segmented labor markets, which identify distinct sectors of jobs and workers. The primary sector consists of appealing jobs, with high wages, good working conditions, chances for advancement, equity, and employment stability. Jobs in the secondary sector are low‐paying, with poor working conditions, little chance of advancement, absence of equity, and little employment stability. Internal labor markets operate in the primary sector. Though it was not conventional to think of military service as a good job under conscription, the services have attempted to establish primary sector status in the transformation to a large All‐Volunteer Force. They tried to compete effectively for personnel with the characteristics they sought by offering good jobs, competitive wages, high quality of work life, attractive benefits—including support for higher education—and opportunities for training, travel, advancement, and supervisory responsibility at a relatively young age.

Organizations that function as internal labor markets possess market power, usually because of the desirability of their jobs or the level of their wages. However, the most successful internal labor market in terms of control of entry‐level recruiting may have been the wartime military, which was based on selective conscription. It would take those people with the characteristics it wanted, largely independent of their volition, and could reject others. As an internal labor market, it would then seek to retain, through compensation and promotion, those it wanted to keep.

Workers, as well as jobs, are segmented into market sectors. Desirable workers may be defined in terms of their skills and the price of their labor, as well as other characteristics such as gender and race. Members of minority groups, historically relegated to the secondary labor market, must frequently have had to settle for jobs characterized by unpleasant working conditions, low prestige, and low potential for advancement. However, when primary sector employers cannot recruit sufficient primary sector employees, they will broaden their recruitment base.

Ability is a primary definitive characteristic of labor market sector. Since World War I, the armed forces have used tests to screen out the bottom of the mental aptitude distribution, and recruitment screening today takes into account both educational level, which is related to social class, and mental aptitude test scores. However, during World War II, the criterion of literacy was relaxed to expand the induction base and obtain a massive force.

Gender has also been important in segmenting the labor force. Military service, and particularly involvement in combat, has historically been primarily a male pursuit; women have traditionally been relegated to the secondary market. The numbers and roles of women in the military have increased dramatically when the requisite numbers of men were not available, either because of the magnitude of mobilization (World War II), or because in the absence of conscription since 1973, sufficient numbers of men could not be recruited for a large standing force. Internally, women have done well in those career fields to which they have been admitted.

For most of American history, African Americans were regarded as a secondary source of labor, and the military was segregated from the early nineteenth century until the mid‐twentieth century. Integration took place under the pressure to mobilize for the Korean War from the small Depression generation and the World War II veterans. African Americans are now overrepresented in the enlisted grades, although underrepresented in the officers' grades.

In short, the military has historically defined young, white, unmarried, heterosexual males of high mental aptitude as its primary labor market, and has used these variables to segment the remainder of the market. When market conditions precluded filling all of the positions from the primary market, the services made decisions as to which segments to tap next. The services turned first to older married white men, then to African American men, then to women, ignoring sexual orientation until very recently. Even when secondary labor force segments are drawn upon for entry‐level personnel, the people so recruited are disadvantaged. Their characteristics operate against them in competition for jobs that offer greater opportunity for retention and promotion, although there has been an increasing emphasis on ability and decreasing concern for secondary characteristics.
[See also Class and the Military; Gender; Gender and War; Rank and Hierarchy.]


Neil D. Fligstein , Who Served in the Military, 1940–73?, Armed Forces and Society, 6 (Winter 1980), pp. 297–312.
Sue E. Berryman , Who Serves? The Persistent Myth of the Underclass Army, 1986.
David R. Segal , Recruiting for Uncle Sam, 1989.

David R. Segal

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Stratification and Labor Market Dynamics in the Military

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