Existing research linking prior military employment with labor market outcomes has focused on comparing the relative income of veterans and nonveterans. However, people who join the armed forces are uniquely selected from the broader population, and the form and direction of selectivity has shifted over time, with differential enlistment rates by race, region, and socioeconomic status. Understanding changes in the demographic composition of enlistees and veterans has significant import for the study of social mobility, particularly given changes in the occupational structure since the mid-twentieth century and wage stagnation well into the new millennium. Furthermore, labor market polarization and increases in educational attainment since WWII raise additional concerns about the social origins of military personnel and their occupational trajectories after discharge. Using data from the National Longitudinal Surveys, we investigate how social background is linked to both income and occupational mobility among veterans from three cohorts of American men: World War II, Vietnam, and the All-Volunteer Force. We find few benefits for veterans, for either income or intergenerational occupational mobility, once social background is controlled, suggesting that selection into the armed forces largely governs outcomes in the civilian labor market. Our findings have significant importance for understanding civilian labor market outcomes and trajectories of social mobility during distinct phases of military staffing.
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Given our focus on how veteran outcomes in the civilian labor market are moderated by social class origins, we emphasize the military’s role in providing access to employment and training opportunities.
Although social mobility is rarely defined, sociologists generally conceive of this term as upward or downward “movement” in social class, status, or occupation within and across generations (Westoff et al. 1960). Payne and Payne (1983, p. 72) observe: “Despite this operational dependence on occupation, the terms ‘social mobility’ and ‘occupational mobility’ are used synonymously” and that “strictly speaking mobility is measured in an occupational dimension.”
A limited “employer-matching” program, the Veterans’ Educational Assistance Program, provided support during the early Volunteer years.
The Montgomery GI Bill was an employer-matching program, requiring registration upon enlistment, and participation throughout the first year of employment. Tuition assistance for part-time study while on active duty was more broadly available (Bureau of Labor Statistics 2007; Thirtle 2001). See Bennett and McDonald (2013) for more details.
Because of the conceptual challenges associated with identifying labor market outcomes for later career, working class male workers following the financial collapse of 2008, we do not extend our analyses for the AVF cohort past 2008.
For information on using a change variable as a dependent variable in regression analysis, see Allison (1990).
Marital status may be an outcome of greater occupational mobility, rather than a cause. However, it has been used as a predictor in prior research on veterans (for example, Martindale and Poston 1979).
Veteran percentages for all cohorts reflect weighted totals. Restricting this sample to those who were aged 25 or younger in 1941 increases weighted percentages to 67% for white men and 48% for black men.
The 1966 Older Men’s sample had 5200 respondents. By 1967, 60 of those men had died, and another 216 were lost to follow-up, leaving 4924 men in the sample.
Many of these differences are likely captured by variables already incorporated, particularly educational attainment.
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Funding was funded by University of Washington’s Graduate School, Harry Bridges Center for Labor Studies, West Coast Poverty Center and Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (Grant no: 5 T32 HD 7163-31). We are also grateful for computing support from the University of Washington's Center for Studies in Demography and Ecology.
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Bailey, A.K., Sykes, B.L. Veteran Status, Income, and Intergenerational Mobility Across Three Cohorts of American Men. Popul Res Policy Rev 37, 539–568 (2018). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11113-018-9477-1
- Social mobility
- Social capital
- Occupational mobility