Military demographics change over time. Sixty-five years ago, the United States had a segregated military, but today people of every race, color, and creed train and fight side by side. Twenty-five years ago, women were excluded from half the occupational specialties in the Army and 80 percent of Marine Corps jobs; today, women can serve in all but a few combat-related occupational specialties. Just two years ago, gay and lesbian service members risked discharge; today, they can serve openly.
But there's one thing that hasn't changed much. Each year, the overwhelming majority of new military recruits are young and male. In that sense, the American military of 2012 still looks a great deal like the American military of the 1970s, the 1940s, the 1860s, or the 1770s. For that matter, it still looks a lot like virtually every group of warriors in virtually every society during virtually every period of human history.
It's time to question the near-universal assumption that the ideal military recruit is young and male. The nature of warfare has changed dramatically in the last century and the capabilities most needed by the military are less and less likely to be in the exclusive possession of young males. In fact, the opposite may be true: when it comes to certain key skills and qualities likely to be vital to the military in the coming decades, young males may be one of the least well-suited demographic groups.
For most of human history, having an army full of young men made lots of sense. As soldiers, young males have had two things going for them, historically speaking. First, they're usually stronger, on average, than any other demographic group: they can run fast and carry heavy loads. Second, they're (relatively) biologically expendable from a species-survival perspective: women of child-bearing age are the limiting factor in population growth. A society can lose a lot of young men without a devastating impact on overall population growth.
Today, though, these characteristics don't matter as much as they once did. Overall birthrates are much lower in modern societies than they were during earlier periods, but life expectancy is much longer. Early societies worried about sustaining their populations; today we worry less about ensuring population growth than about overburdening the planet's load-bearing capacity.
Simple brawn also offers far less advantage in our high-tech age. In modern warfare, brutal hand-to-hand combat is no longer the norm, and warfare is no longer a matter of sending out wave after wave of troops to overwhelm the enemy through sheer mass. Increasingly, modern warfare involves a mixture of high-tech skills and low-tech cultural knowledge rather than "fighting" in the traditional sense.
In fact, if the next few decades are anything like the last, most military personnel will never see combat. A recent McKinsey study found that the "tooth to tail" ratio in the active duty U.S. military was roughly one to three in 2008: for every service member in a combat or combat-support position, there were more than three service members in non-combat-related positions. A 2010 Defense Business Board study found that 40 percent of active duty military personnel had never even been deployed -- and that's during a decade in which the United States was at war in both Iraq and Afghanistan.
Being young, male, and strong offers no particular advantage to an Air Force remote drone pilot or an Army financial services technician. Even for service members in combat positions, the physical strength that young men are more likely to possess no longer offers as much of an advantage: today's weapons are lighter and more portable than they used to be, and even the most impressive musculature is no match for an IED.