Things are hard for millennials and Generation Z, but for young military veterans transitioning back to civilian life, things are even harder, according to a new survey of almost 1,300 former members of the five service branches. About half of post-9/11 veterans say that military service simply did not prepare them for life after leaving, and a larger number had a difficult time after returning to civilian life. An overwhelming majority reveal that they returned to jobs for which they were more disciplined than those with whom they worked. A sizeable minority say they were overqualified for the jobs waiting for them, with a third having trouble making ends meet. These numbers were reported this month in a study conducted by Pew Research Center, and the sample also included Guard and Reserve members who were activated in support of the war.
A GENERATION SET UP TO FAIL
First: a primer on what young people are up against. Wages don’t go as far today as they once did. As Elise Gould of the Economic Policy Institute puts it: “Rising wage inequality and sluggish hourly wage growth for the vast majority of workers have been defining features of the American labor market for nearly four decades, despite steady productivity growth.” With costs for college, healthcare, and food reaching astronomical heights, and affordable housing reaching new lows, mental health is on the decline—and young people can’t afford to get the help they might need.
Home ownership, meanwhile, is at its lowest rate in fifty years, and for young adults, the number is particularly alarming and far below that of their parents’ generation at a similar age. Once millennials and Generation Z finally achieve home ownership—years behind schedule—economists fear it will have debilitating effects on their retirements, the savings for which having started too late to sustain their declining years.
Part of the problem is that younger Americans never recovered from the last recession. They stumbled badly out of the gate, graduating from high school and college into the worst job market since the Great Depression. Because they are still suffering from the last one, when the next recession hits (as signs suggest) the entire generation could be devastated.
BUT FOR VETERANS, IT’S WORSE
All of the above stressors apply equally to young vets in transition, with the addition of burdens carried home from the combat zone. According to RAND, 20% of veterans of Iraq or Afghanistan have major depression or post-traumatic stress disorder. It is inarguable that vets today are facing something deep and scary—far beyond bad jobs numbers or getting married at 40. The veteran suicide rate is twice as high as that of the civilian population. It’s skyrocketed 32% since 9/11. Veteran suicides in VA parking lots have become an epidemic thanks in part to how overwhelmed the system has become.
I asked Diana Anzaldua, a clinical therapist at Austin Trauma Therapy Center who works with veterans, what she was seeing in her patients. Without a moment of hesitation, she listed anxiety, depression, aggression, and adjustment disorder—the latter being a difficulty adapting to their new lives. “A lot of it,” she says, “is coming from a highly structured environment to a lack of structure at all.” The Pew Research Center poll confirms her observations, with a solid third of veterans feeling this way.
The poll reveals that post-9/11 veterans feel that while their training prepared them well for military life (91% affirming), they’re pretty evenly split on how training prepared them life after military service, with 45% of those surveyed describing it as “not too well” or “not well at all.” The transition numbers are equally grim: 21% of pre-9/11 veterans had a very or somewhat difficult time transitioning to civilian life. In stark contrast, a staggering 47% of post-9/11 veterans had a hard time.
“About a third of veterans say they had trouble paying their bills in their first few years after leaving the military,” reports the Pew Research Center, “and roughly three-in-ten say they received unemployment compensation. One-in-five say they struggled with alcohol or substance abuse.”
Housing costs are a lot scarier when you don’t get a basic allowance for housing. But on a personal level, there are, perhaps, certain indignities that make the transition a particular challenge: 71% of young veterans feel they are more patriotic than those who didn’t serve, and 84% of veterans feel that they are more disciplined than their non-serving counterparts.
Despite this, years of service and sacrifice are yielding “gig-economy” jobs with no benefits—and that can take its toll. (Uber driver, GrubHub food delivery—this is honorable work, but hardly the sort of jobs that World War II vets returned to, and no kind of career.) Those sort of job numbers are higher than you think: 38% of gig-economy workers are between the ages of 18 and 34, according to a report by Edison Research. Post-9/11 veteran attitudes reflect this: 41% feel they were overqualified for their first post-military job.
HOPE FOR THE FUTURE
Veterans who feel trapped, overwhelmed, or depressed about their state of affairs after leaving military service have options. A lot of it is as simple as self-care. Anzaldua encourages young veterans transitioning to civilian life to build the structure that was lost—and the veteran experience does help with that. “It’s part of why so many veterans opt to pursue an education funded from the VA,” she says. “The veterans that I work with now, both in school and otherwise, often have several hours in their schedule that they use, for example, for working out.”
Anzaldua also promotes to her patients such things as mindfulness and meditation practices. But she notes that a veteran transitioning to civilian life should not wait until mental health issues present before talking to someone. “I feel like as soon as a veteran is discharged, therapy is something that should be done right away,” she says. “It shouldn’t have to get to the three-month mark where we’re calling it ‘adjustment disorder.’ It should be something that happens as soon as they are discharged, and can continue that until they are more stable—and by stable I mean they have a good job and are financially secure and things are going well. Then they can, at that point, no longer see a therapist.”
Regarding that stable job, veterans are in possession of at least one weapon in their employment arsenal: their security clearance. According to the 2018 ClearanceJobs Compensation Survey, the mean base pay of clearance-holding professionals is $83,221—an 8% increase over the previous year. Even for entry-level jobs, the mean total compensation for clearance holders is $54,942. That’s a lot of Uber pickups, and the numbers rise quickly from there. (The mean base pay of an entry-level cleared worker is about seventeen thousand dollars more annually than that of an E-4 with six years in.)
There’s a lot of uncertainty out there. Maybe the economy will hold steady, maybe it won’t. Congress and the White House are on the same page about fixing the Department of Veterans Affairs, though they differ in how, exactly, it should be done. The Post-9/11 G.I. Bill remains perhaps the greatest benefit of post-military life, and was expanded and improved upon in 2017, removing the expiration date and increasing funds. So all hope is not lost. But if the Pew Research findings are accurate, it may take a while before things get better for post-9/11 vets.