Move over millennials – you may be the largest generation in the U.S. workforce, but you’re no longer the young, trendy culture busting change agents you once were. That title now goes to Generation Z, the young people ages 6-24 and who are moving up and into positions across the commercial and government sector. Despite the pandemic, there is still high demand across government to recruit and retain the next generation – a generation that faces unique difficulties in obtaining national security work due to security clearance eligibility requirements that are still grounded in 1940s policies.
That’s the message from a newly released RAND report on “Updating Personnel Vetting and Security Clearance Guidelines for Future Generations.” The study noted four age-based trends that could change how personnel security decisions are managed in the future:
- Young people today have more opportunities than ever to interact with foreign nationals.
- Student loan debt and use of alternative financial instruments such as bitcoin.
- Growing marijuana and nonmedical prescription drug use.
- Digital personal conduct.
The report made a bold recommendation to actually add a new adjudicative guideline, digital personal conduct, to address what is perceived as the pervasive use of social media and the growing risks proposed by digital activities, from the massive increase in illegal activities such as child pornography, to risky behaviors such as trading cryptocurrencies. While many of these issues could be otherwise addressed in adjudicative guidelines for criminal conduct and financial issues, a lack of clarity and awareness means online behavior is opening the doors to new risks for the federal government, and warrants a separate adjudicative guideline to address the issues directly, the RAND report notes. At a minimum, it encourages digital conduct to be considered “ubiquitous” across all other criteria for adjudicators.
Digital Conduct a Growing Concern
Addressing social media and digital conduct has been a growing issue for security clearance reform efforts, with the Capitol Hill riots creating new calls for bans on individuals who have participated in certain online groups from obtaining federal security clearances. The issue is largely in the gap addressed in the RAND report – while current policy allows the government to consider social media postings as a part of the background investigation process, it is still working out the correct means and method of gathering and validating that data. The RAND report broadens that threat, noting it’s not just social media postings and activity that are an issue, but the entire ecosystem of how young people, in particular, are interacting online – from cryptocurrencies to pornography – and the need to engage digital conduct as a part of the personnel vetting process.
Cryptocurrency, Drug Use, and Foreign Contacts
Other issues that will likely require policy changes or at least renewed consideration over the coming years include debt sources, drug use and foreign contacts. With both the number of foreign-born residents in the U.S. and student travel abroad growing, more national security workers are likely to have at least some foreign influence concerns to consider as a part of the security clearance process. Student loan debt is also widespread, with most applicants having at least some student loan debt, and many with significant obligations they expect to carry for years to come. Even more significant is the use of cryptocurrencies and other emerging digital payment options. The RAND report advised the government to continue to consider these emerging challenges, without offering clear recommendations.
Another area where sentiment continues to change is with drug use. The RAND study suggests creating new mitigations for individuals who are using drugs where such use is ‘legal’ per state law. While the study recommends less scrutiny for marijuana use, it suggest the government actually increase its attention toward non-legal prescription drug use, of growing prevalence for young people and a potentially higher national security concern.
As Generation Z blazes its trail into national security careers, it brings these trends with them. As the government considers how to attract and retain a qualified workforce, it will also have to consider how the current adjudicative guidelines can be applied to these emerging generational challenges – or if, in fact, new guidelines are needed to cover issues such as online postings and digital personal conduct.