April 13, 2017

6 facts about the U.S. military and its changing demographics

Troops assemble at Al Udeid Air Base in Qatar in December 2013. (Mark Wilson/Getty Images)
Troops assembled at Al Udeid Air Base in Qatar in December 2013. (Mark Wilson/Getty Images)

As the size of the active-duty U.S. military has edged downward, its demographic makeup has changed, largely in ways that reflect trends in the broader society.

There were 1,340,533 active-duty troops in 2015 (including those serving in the U.S. Coast Guard). This marks the smallest active-duty force since 2001, according to a new Pew Research Center analysis of data from the U.S. Department of Defense (DOD). In addition, the share of Americans serving in the active-duty military has declined marginally to 0.4% of the population in 2015 (down from 0.5% in 2009).

Here are some key facts about today’s military. 

1The Army remains the largest branch of the U.S. military. In 2015, 36% of all active-duty military personnel were serving in the Army. The Navy and Air Force were comparable in size, each accounting for roughly a quarter of active-duty personnel. The Marine Corps made up 14% of the active-duty military, while the Coast Guard made up 3%.

The Army, Navy and Air Force are substantially smaller in numbers today compared with their size in 1990. The size of the Marine Corps’ active-duty force has also decreased, but not to the extent of these other branches. By comparison, the number of active-duty members of the Coast Guard has ticked up.

2The active-duty force remains largely male-dominated, but women have made inroads in recent decades. Overall, 15% of DOD active-duty military personnel are women, up from 11% in 1990. In 2015, 17% of active-duty officers were female – up from their share of 12% in 1990. And 15% of enlisted personnel were female in 2015, up from 11% in 1990. The share of women in the ranks varies significantly by service branch. Women comprise nearly one-in-five active-duty personnel in the Air Force (19%) but only 8% of all Marines. Women make up 18% of the Navy and 14% of the Army.

3As the country has become more racially and ethnically diverse, so has the U.S. military. Racial and ethnic minority groups made up 40% of Defense Department active-duty military in 2015, up from 25% in 1990. (In 2015, 44% of all Americans ages 18 to 44 were racial or ethnic minorities.)

In the same year, blacks made up 17% of the DOD active-duty military – somewhat higher than their share of the U.S. population ages 18 to 44 (13%). Blacks have consistently been represented in greater shares among enlisted personnel (19% in 2015) than among the commissioned officers (9%). The share of the active-duty force that is Hispanic has risen rapidly in recent decades. In 2015, 12% of all active-duty personnel were Hispanic, three times the share in 1980.

4The active-duty military has grown older in the past 40 years. Roughly two-thirds of all DOD active-duty military personnel were ages 30 or younger in 2015. Only about one-in-ten (9%) were older than 40. Even so, since the military draft ended in 1973, the average age of officers and enlisted personnel has increased. The average military officer was roughly 34.5 years old in 2015, up from 32.1 in 1973. And the average enlisted member was just over age 27 in 2015, compared with age 25 in 1973. The age gap between officers and the troops they lead has remained consistent over that time period.

5Military officers have considerably higher levels of educational attainment, on average, than enlisted personnel and U.S. adults. More than eight-in-ten DOD active-duty officers have at least a bachelor’s degree, including 42% who hold an advanced degree. They are four times as likely as average adults ages 18 to 44 to have completed a postgraduate degree.

The educational profile of enlisted personnel is much different. The vast majority of enlisted personnel (92%) have completed high school or some college. This compares with 60% of all U.S. adults ages 18 to 44. Fewer than one-in-ten enlisted personnel (7%) have a bachelor’s degree, compared with 19% of all adults ages 18 to 44.

6There is much more to the U.S. military than the active-duty force. In recent conflicts around the world, the National Guard and Reserves have often fought alongside the active-duty military. In 2015, 826,106 adults served in the Selected Reserves – those National Guard members and reservists who were available to be called to active duty. An additional 275,247 adults are in the Inactive National Guard and Individual Ready Reserve and do not engage in regular training or active-duty drills.

The Army National Guard and the Army Reserve make up the largest share of the Selected Reserves (roughly two-thirds together). The Air National Guard and Air Force Reserve account for an additional 21%.

Topics: Demographics, Federal Government, Military and Veterans

  1. Photo of Kim Parker

    is director of social trends research at Pew Research Center.

  2. Photo of Anthony Cilluffo

    is a research assistant focusing on social and demographic trends at Pew Research Center.

  3. Photo of Renee Stepler

    is a research analyst focusing on social and demographic trends at Pew Research Center.


  1. Howard Loomis3 months ago

    Prior to 9/11
    10 percent of women were non deployable at any given time.
    Since 9/11 the deploy ability rate of females has been classified secret.
    My question is this:
    What is the deploy ability rate at any given time of men compared to women before and after 9/11?
    My educated guess:
    Prior to 9/11
    After 9/11

  2. Anonymous3 months ago

    Much of this data looks suspect to me. I would start with the 8 in 10 officers possessing a 4 year degree. The first requirement that must be met for commissioning is a bachelor degree. What does that say about the remaining data?

    1. Anonymous3 months ago

      Was my first thought as well. I was commissioned in ’05…at the time they had a program to let AA holders in, but they had to finish their bachelors before they could be promoted to CPT. So…basically they’d do their PL time and go to school after that.

      Granted…that was only coming through OCS…so that eliminates the academy and ROTC guys, who obviously get commissioned with a degree. Pretty sure we didn’t have more than a couple out of my class that were doing the program. That definitely WOULD NOT result in 8/10 in the overall force.

    2. Anonymous3 months ago

      There are a lot of O1-O2 grade officers in the military. Example Lieutenant (2nd/1st) do not need to obtain a baccalaureate degree until being considered for captain.

      IAW Army Regulation 135–155, para 2-9a, “Effective 1 October 1995, no person may be selected for promotion to the Reserve grade of CPT unless, not later than the day before the selection board convene date, that person has been awarded a baccalaureate degree from an accredited institution recognized by the Secretary of Education or, within the 3 years preceding promotion, the officer has earned a baccalaureate degree from an unaccredited educational institution that has been recognized by the Department of Defense (DOD) for purposes of meeting officer educational requirements. This requirement does not apply to a person who is appointed in a health profession for which a baccalaureate degree is not condition of original appointment or assignment.”

    3. Anonymous3 months ago

      While each branch of service differs in policy, there are several programs that allow admittance into the officer corps without requirong a four-year degree. For instance, limited-duty officers (LDO) and chief warrant officers (CWO) are pulled from senior enlisted servicemembers with highly specialized skill sets, and to my knowledge make up most of the roughly 20 percent noted in this study.

  3. Shawn Bowden3 months ago

    Wait, wait wait. Having a bachelor’s degree is a baseline requirement to be a commisioned officer in the military, regardless of branch. How the hell do “only” 8/10 officers have it? Is this study including warrant officers as well?

    1. Howard Loomis3 months ago

      Military, 1996-0308, Enlisted Education:
      HS 95.7 percent.
      Some College 24.1 percent.
      GED 4.3 percent.
      Bachelor’s Degree 3.6 percent.
      This includes NCOs.

      Military, 1996-0308, Officer Education:
      Bachelor’s Degree 100 percent.
      Masters 21.5 percent
      Professional Degree 10.7 percent.

    2. Anonymous3 months ago

      Yes, they are. If you check the source, linked above, which is a DoD collection, you’ll see that Warrant Officers are included.

  4. Anonymous3 months ago

    The correlative information on diversity and educational attainment is important, but needs further socio-cultural analysis in three critical areas:

    1. Although High School equivalents for enlisted personnel for all services are higher than the national average, what is the breakdown among the services themselves? I suspect that when DoD reduced recruiting standards for Army and USMC candidates following the attacks of 2001 and as renewed during the last years of the Obama administration, that the attainment levels dropped in the direction of the national average.

    2. I believe that the lowered Army and USMC educational and social behavior standards are a major contributor to rapid onset PTSD and suicidal ideation and suicide, by separated/discharged enlisted personnel, and to a lesser but statistically significant degree among junior officers. The absence of any pre-enlistment psychological data, such as information on Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) based on the late 1990s CDC/Kaiser Permanente study, may be an exacerbating circumstance for those who experienced the greatest combat/IED-type trauma.

    3. I think it would be useful to do religious belief correlations, particularly contrasting the enlisted and officer classes, but further sorted between junior and senior officers. Despite a more diverse enlisted population, I suspect that the officer cadres may be over represented by white, religiously conservative and actively proselytizing Protestants. If such is the case, the “born again” activism may be a contributing factor in fostering religious and/or socio-cultural intolerance among active and reserve units.

    And as a subset of this data, I suggest that the ex-/post-military community, including enlisted and officer classes, would be a useful moiety for studying questions of firearms ownership, a variety of violent behaviors, and both liberal and conservative political attitudes.

    My compliments on your always stellar research efforts and results,

    Allen D. Blume
    Pathfinder Services

  5. Anonymous3 months ago

    Given that a direct commission as an officer in all branches of the military in all areas I’m aware of REQUIRES the minimum of a bachelor’s degree, learning that more than 10% of officers are without such a degree is surprising. It is, of course, quite possible for enlisted personnel without a bachelor’s degree to attend Officer Candidate School and be commissioned, so there are always some officers without degrees, but I’m surprised at the number you report.

  6. Anonymous3 months ago

    Perhaps Pew should study whether or not more, or fewer, black active duty officers are in the combat arms of the Army . . . infantry, artillery, and armor . . . versus the number that are in the non-combat arms such as transportation, quartermaster, etc. Is the percentage of black officers in the active duty combat arms increasing or decreasing?

  7. Anonymous3 months ago

    Wow what a shock that officers are more educated than enlisted! Hence the fact that you have to have a degree to get in the military as an officer. To get in as an enlisted you have to be a high school graduate and pass the ASVAB test at a particular level (score).

  8. Packard Day3 months ago

    Pinkley (played by Donald Sutherland) [impersonating a general] “Very pretty, Colonel, Very pretty, But, can they fight? (The Dirty Dozen, 1967).”