Demographics of the U.S. Military

George M. Reynolds and Amanda Shendruk

Deployed around the world, the armed forces are a pillar of U.S. power and influence abroad. But many civilians are unfamiliar with their composition. How much does the military resemble U.S. society at large?

The United States ended the draft for military service in 1973, transitioning to the all-volunteer force that exists today. At the time, the active component of the military comprised 2.2 million men and women. Now, this group comprises just under 1.29 million, or less than 0.5 percent of the U.S. population. Who are they? Where are they from? How diverse are they? Let’s dive into the demographics.

There are four branches of the U.S. military: The Army, Marine Corps, Navy, and Air Force. With nearly half a million members, the army is the largest service.

How old are active component members?

The armed forces, which have strict age limits, are younger than the civilian population, but the numbers differ significantly by service. The air force tends to have older recruits, while the marines skew younger. Eighty-four percent of marines recruits are age twenty or younger.

How affluent are enlisted recruits?

Most members of the military come from middle-class neighborhoods. A neighborhood affluence study found that the middle three quintiles were overrepresented among enlisted recruits, while the top and bottom quintiles were underrepresented.

Where are enlisted recruits from?

Enlisted military members come from all of the fifty states, but some regions contribute more than others. In absolute terms, the top five states for recruitment in 2016 were California, Texas, Florida, Georgia, and New York, largely because of their relatively large populations.

Another way of analyzing this data is to compare representation ratios, which looks at recruits as a share of a state’s population of eighteen to twenty-four year olds. From this perspective, the picture changes significantly. A ratio of one means the state’s share of recruits in 2016 was equal to its share of eighteen to twenty-four year olds.

Georgia had the highest representation ratio, at 1.5, meaning it contributed 50 percent more than its share of the country’s eighteen to twenty-four year old population. By this measure, Florida, South Carolina, Virginia, and Arizona round out the top five. On the other end of the spectrum—states that contribute fewer recruits than their share of eighteen to twenty-four year olds (those with ratios less than one)—are Washington, DC, North Dakota, Rhode Island, Massachusetts, and New York.

How diverse is the military?

Federal agencies categorize race into five groups—white, black or African American, American Indian or Alaska Native, Asian, and Native Hawaiian or other Pacific Islander. Ethnicity, which the government considers distinct from race, is divided into two categories: Hispanic or Latino, and not Hispanic or Latino. Among enlisted recruits, 43 percent of men and 56 percent of women are Hispanic or a racial minority. Female recruits are consistently more diverse than the civilian population; they are also more diverse than male recruits.

When the draft ended in 1973, women represented just 2 percent of the enlisted forces and 8 percent of the officer corps. Today, those numbers are 16 percent and 18 percent respectively, a significant increase.

Historically, the air force has had the highest percentage of enlisted and officer women; however, by 2016, the navy had nearly caught up. In both services, approximately one in five enlisted members and officers are women. In 2016, the Defense Department lifted all restrictions on the roles women can perform in the military

All data are from CNA’s, Population Representation in the Military Services: Fiscal Year 2016 Summary Report.