Written by Katie Keller and Jason Criss Howk

As Generation Z starts to trickle into the national security workforce, it would be instructive to understand what motivates them to serve their nation. Knowing why they want to serve can help leaders across the government and business world to build strong teams, reward and counsel them in wise ways, and retain the best of this generation in these critical career fields.

Jason Howk was a leader of Gen X and millennial generation members while in government service and for the last 5 years has been teaching political science and national security classes to Gen Z members. 

Katie Keller entered the defense sector as an entry-level millennial, supporting various intelligence, technical, and science & technologies government contractors with customers across the Department of Defense. For the last eight years she has provided recruitment and staffing strategy to help supply the workforce to combat national security issues. 

Today they are sharing responses from Gen Z members they have taught, mentored and networked with so our readers can start to relate to this generation better.

While millennials grew up in the shadow of the September 11th attacks, with almost all remembering the events that day and how they affected them, Gen Z grew up in the thick of conflicts in the Middle East, but after the attacks. Their experience with 9/11 and the war on terror is seen through the lense of the media, with less direct personal experience. The first members of Gen Z were graduating high school just as the Great Recession began, and many value financial security and worry more about student loans than another 9/11. Coupled with intense technology proficiency, a more urban living experience, and racial diversity, Gen Z offers thought diversity to national security conversations beyond even what the millennial generation delivered. 


“I was born in 1997, and believe I have a unique yet relatable perspective on why I want to work in national security. I am an immigrant and moved to the states at age 3, watching my parents obtain green cards, and finally citizenship when I was 16. I want to work in national security not out of a sense of nationalism or fear of attack, but because I see the world as deeply interconnected, and I want the U.S. to be a part of a future that prioritizes the safety and wellbeing of people all around the globe. I think Gen Z’s motivations to enter the field will be more in-line with these kinds of ideas- globalization, interconnectedness, and open conversations. Then again, I have an international relations degree, so that might just be me.” 

-Noa, Washington, D.C.

“I really didn’t want to go [to college] because I had a bad K-12 experience. But I gave a local community college a chance. I was a good student for the first time, but didn’t really know what I wanted to do with my life. That changed when I took “Terrorism and Counterterrorism” because I needed units and was already kind of interested in the topic. The professor I had was the best instructor, and displayed clear knowledge and a passion for his subject. He also gave me encouragement and advice to write a ten-page vulnerability assessment on a local target, something that I had never done before. He helped me find my passion in terrorism and counterterrorism. After that class, I decided to do more research into terrorism, specifically Salafi-Jihadism.” 

-Alex, California

“I decided to enter the nat sec space not because of 9/11 itself, but because of what has happened since. I always felt that there were voices missing from the conversation – almost no one pushing back on ideas while we entered wars and used certain rhetoric to frame these issues. I joined the nat sec space to hopefully break those ideas and barriers down and ensure there were no other attacks like 9/11. In college, I also felt that national security was no longer important to my peers. The idea of another attack or a nuclear weapon being used was not an issue – it was more important to focus on themselves. The younger generation has always been made fun of for not caring, so that has been who we’ve become; the older generations were going to do what they wanted and leave other people out of the conversation, so my peers found other things to be and other issues to focus on. By joining the national security space, I wanted to highlight how these issues fit within their lives and affect them, and willing my friends to care about what happens in the world.” 

-Jessica, Colorado

“Despite not witnessing 9/11 first-hand I still feel the impact. My classes watched numerous documentaries during middle and high school, and I still feel the grim sorrow in the voice of my teachers echoing through the announcement system what happened years ago; and observing a moment of silence for when each plane hit. I’m interested in national security because it’s something that affects everyone and it offers opportunities and glimpses into how our nation works. Whether the threats are foreign or domestic, if I could be of any use to my nation in solving them, I’d feel accomplished. Foreign affairs is fascinating to me because it combines the variety and beauty of a nation’s cultures with interactions between each other. Getting to learn more about other cultures has been a fascination of mine ever since I traveled around as a child. The idea of representing my nation, and aiding in global cooperation is a fascinatingly unique job I can’t really find anywhere else. I have a deep love for my nation, and politics. The idea that I could actually be helping it become the best it can be sounds incredible. I love solving puzzles, finding creative solutions to problems, talking to people, and turning invisible concepts like numbers into digestible and useful data. I would say I want to improve foreign relations related to global connectivity. The beauty of international relations is the communication between nations, and ideally working towards a future for the good of everybody.” 

-Zachary, North Carolina

“When I was younger, my Dad and my Grandpa always told stories about their experiences in the Army. It always fascinated me and even as I got older, I always had this feeling in the back of my mind that whether before or after college, I would join. I wanted not necessarily to be just like them, but I wanted to serve because it was a way to show them my appreciation for what they had sacrificed for me. They were the source of my motivation to join. I believe it’s important for my generation to serve in the military because it’s a unique experience you won’t receive anywhere else. Also, I believe with a new generation of workers comes new ideas and a different outlook on the world that helps move the military forward.”

-Garrett, Texas

“I’m considering a career in foreign affairs because I find how foreign governments interact with each other really fascinating, especially considering their unique histories and perspectives. My focus would most likely be foreign relations, namely because I know that it is crucial to build and maintain relationships in order to be successful, which remains true for governments as well. That also requires a deeper understanding and general respect for differing perspectives and worldviews, which is something I want to focus on more. I have always been interested in world history- and how the past impacts countries in their present state. I’ve found that many countries still feel the ripple effect of historic events that have happened decades ago, and it has created a lasting impact on how these governments view the world and their peoples today. But, disturbingly, I’ve found that the general public and media often forget this.” 

-Caetlyn, North Carolina

“I come from a non-military background, and hearing about your [Howk’s] experiences in Afghanistan and as an advisor in the presidential transition process, was the first time I was exposed to military service. I remember feeling inspired by your nuanced perspectives. You helped me begin to see the difference between studying topics such as international affairs and national security in abstraction, versus being on the ground and truly considering the human impact of those policies. Although I am still figuring out my future career path, I will be joining Army ROTC at Stanford this fall, and you played a large role in my decision to give back by serving. I also want to be involved in national security and ROTC based on my own experiences growing up across Asia and America. I was born in the United States, but I grew up in Beijing; I have attended American public school, Chinese public school, international school, and boarding school. My upbringing has exposed me to people from different socio-economic and cultural backgrounds. I enjoy connecting with people who are different from me, and I want to use my cultural fluency to build understanding. In high school, I helped run roundtable discussions and we rattled off facts about the domestic policy topics and pitched bipartisan solutions, but we debated policy in abstraction: most of us had never talked to anyone who struggled with the topic. I did not begin realizing the impact of the policy I debated in school until I answered questions about them for the Congressman’s constituents. I think we need more engagement between the private and public sectors, government and academia, and especially the military and civilians.”

-Linda, New Jersey

“My great-grandfather served in the Korean War, and then alongside the Soviets to produce  sustainable crops that would grow in frozen ground. My grandmother longed to serve in the FBI, but was denied entrance on the account that J. Edgar Hoover had a rule against women in the FBI. She has since become a successful businesswoman, and currently acts as the President of the FBI’s Citizen’s Academy of Arizona. My father served in the US Army for nine years, and now works as a private contractor for Joint Special Operations Command. The extent of my family’s service reaches even farther than this, and leaves me with the impression that government is our family business. I have grown up around individuals who possess immense power, but who wield it humbly. Their only goal is to improve the lives of those who do not have their same privileges, and as I become more attuned to the threats and needs of this world, it is my desire to do the same. Serving my country is not only an interest of my future, but also an interest of protecting my past, and preserving the liberties and goodness my family has worked to spread around the world. The vision for my service is not yet clear, though I imagine I would like to be on the frontlines of diplomacy, seeing firsthand deals and negotiations that make the world turn. In this capacity, my goal would be to gently, yet deliberately, expand American ideals, and extend the notions of freedom and agency I revel in daily. I would also like to work directly with the people of other nations, empowering them through knowledge and skills for self-sufficiency, as I believe those are precious tools in abolishing tyrannical rule and oppression.”

-Lauren, North Carolina

“My primary motivation for entering the national security/foreign affairs field is my desire to serve my country and attempt to make a change in the world I live in. I grew up in a military family and my dad retired as a colonel. His commitment to serving our country inspired me to want to do the same but I knew I did not want to do it in a military capacity. My passions and strengths have always been politics, communication, a talent for foreign language, and a desire and willingness to explore foreign cultures, and these traits seemed particularly suited for a career in foreign service. My desire to get involved in a foreign affairs career stems from my longtime passions of politics, communication, and foreign culture but also because of the world I have grown up in. While It is true that the majority of my generation does not have events such as 9/11 in their memory (I was only a year old at the time) we have grown up in a constant state of open conflict. There is not a single year of my life that I can remember us not being at war in Afghanistan, and coming from a military family this was particularly prevalent. Growing up in this time period has inspired in me a desire to try and change this state of conflict. My focus in a foreign affairs career would be to strengthen ties with our current allies and try to create more. Entering the Foreign Service I plan on following the public diplomacy career track because it is my strong desire to interact with the people of the nations we have diplomatic ties with and show them the US as a beacon for good in the world. Through interacting directly with the people we can learn more about each other and use what we learn to strengthen our bonds as nations or to create new ones.”

-Connor, North Carolina


William Evanina, director of the National Counterintelligence and Security Center, recently reported that NCSC has identified the pros and cons of teleworking and are thinking of what life will look like when we ‘get back to normal.’ With the IC and DoD being just as successful with people working from home, this could make national security a more attractive environment to the next generation. 

Perhaps even more than their predecessors, Gen Z will demand that civilian and military leaders explain the United State’s role around the world in diplomacy – especially with the global connectedness we seem to find in these aforementioned national security motivations. 

This generation, like everyone before it, wants to serve. They understand the concept of putting the team before themselves. The DoD just needs to understand their motivations to make national security a more interesting career choice.

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