Generations at War and Peace: Taking Cohorts Seriously in the Study of Military Service and Socioeconomic Attainment

Meredith A. Kleykamp, University of Maryland

A core insight of the life course perspective is that historical and social context plays a key role in shaping individual life trajectories. In this presentation, I will focus on the implications of cohort succession in the demographic composition of those who serve in the military combined with the changing social and historical contexts of that service for research on the socioeconomic consequences of military service over the life course. My presentation will emphasize two main points. First, the change to a volunteer military has serious implications for the ability to compare across cohorts of veterans, some of whom served as volunteers and some who were drafted, in light of the substantial influence of self- and institutional selection mechanisms at entry into service. Scholars must explicitly acknowledge and account for dramatic changes in demographic composition of those who serve, the pervasiveness of military experience, and the changing selectivity of enlistment across successive cohorts. Second, post-service trajectories in education, employment, and earnings are also influenced by the societal context, historical circumstances, wartime experiences, and policy environments to which veterans return. Comparisons across cohorts that fail to account for the complex constellations of these institutional arrangements miss important dimensions of change and continuity for veterans from different cohorts. My presentation will conclude by offering suggestions for data collection efforts that combine traditional large-scale national surveys with other forms of relevant information.

Presented in Session 163: Military Service, the Life Course, and Aging: A Panel Discussion