Gavin Kinney, left, and his brother Rigel hold up a sign at the New York City Veterans Day Parade on Nov. 11, 2015. (Spencer Platt/Getty Images)
Gavin Kinney, left, and his brother Rigel hold up a sign at the New York City Veterans Day Parade on Nov. 11, 2015. (Spencer Platt/Getty Images)

There are around 19 million U.S. veterans as of this year, according to data from the Department of Veterans Affairs, representing less than 10% of the total U.S. adult population. Here are key facts from the VA, the U.S. Census Bureau and other sources about those who have served in the military and how this population is changing.

How we did this

As U.S. demographics continue to shift, so does the makeup of the American veteran population. Pew Research Center has analyzed some of these changes using data from the Department of Veterans Affairs, the U.S. Census Bureau, the Department of Defense, Center surveys and other news reports. The 2021 and 2046 estimates of the veteran population come from projections published by the VA in 2018.

Looking forward at the changing profile of U.S. veterans

Gulf War-era veterans now account for the largest share of all U.S. veterans, having surpassed Vietnam-era veterans in 2016, according to the VA’s 2018 population model estimates. VA estimates for 2021 indicate there are 5.9 million American veterans who served during the Vietnam era and 7.8 million who served in the Gulf War era, which spans from August 1990 through the present. There are also around 240,000 World War II veterans and about 933,000 who served during the Korean conflict, the VA estimates. Some veterans served through multiple eras but are counted only in their earliest era. Roughly three-quarters (78%) of veterans in 2021 served during wartime, and 22% served during peacetime. (Veterans with wartime and peacetime service are only counted in wartime.)

The share of the U.S. population with military experience is declining. In 2018, about 7% of U.S. adults were veterans, down from 18% in 1980, according to the Census Bureau. This drop coincides with decreases in active-duty personnel. Over the past half-century, the number of people on active duty has dropped significantly, from 3.5 million in 1968, during the military draft era, to about 1.4 million (or less than 1% of all U.S. adults) in today’s all-volunteer force. The draft ended in 1973.

VA projections suggest the number of living veterans will continue to decline over the next 25 years. By 2046, the department estimates there will be around 12.5 million veterans, a decrease of about 35% from current numbers. By that time, Gulf War-era veterans are projected to make up a majority of those who served, and most veterans who served in the Vietnam era or earlier will have died.

The demographic profile of veterans is expected to change in the next quarter century. Currently, about nine-in-ten veterans (89%) are men, while about one-in-ten (11%) are women, according to the VA’s 2021 population model estimates. By 2046, the share of female veterans is expected to increase to about 18%. The number of female veterans is also projected to increase slightly, from around 2 million in 2021 to approximately 2.2 million in 2046. The number of male veterans, on the other hand, is projected to drop from about 17 million in 2021 to around 10.3 million in 2046.

As with trends in the U.S. population overall, the veteran population is expected to become more racially and ethnically diverse. Between 2021 and 2046, the share of veterans who are non-Hispanic White is expected to drop from 74% to 62%. The share of veterans who are Hispanic is expected to double from 8% to 16%, while the share who are Black is expected to increase slightly from 13% to 15%.

Projections also indicate that the veteran population will become slightly younger, with 33% of veterans being younger than 50 in 2046 compared with 27% in 2021, even as the overall U.S. population continues to age. The share of veterans ages 50 to 69 is expected to shrink from 36% to 33%, while the share of those 70 and older is predicted to be around a third of the total (34%) by 2046, slightly lower than the current share (37%).

Fewer veterans in Congress

Fewer members of Congress have prior military experience than in the past. As the share of Americans who are veterans has declined, so has the share of legislators who have previously served in the military. In the current Congress, 17% of lawmakers in both houses had prior military service, down drastically from just a few decades ago.

The share of senators who are veterans reached a post-Korean War peak of 81% in 1975, while the share among House members peaked in 1967 at 75%. However, in recent elections, both Democrats and Republicans have made special efforts to recruit veterans for congressional contests, and the newly elected freshman class includes 15 such lawmakers.

A number of federal agencies viewed favorably by majorities of the public

The Department of Veterans Affairs receives a relatively low favorability rating compared with other government agencies. The VA received the third-lowest rating among 10 agencies and departments in a Pew Research Center survey last spring. Roughly two-thirds of U.S. adults (65%) had a favorable view of the VA, and 22% expressed an unfavorable view. As with many of the agencies and departments in the survey, there were partisan differences in approval. Republicans and Republican-leaning independents expressed higher favorability for the VA (72%) than Democrats and Democratic leaners (61%).

A 2019 survey found veterans themselves had mixed feelings about the agency: 9% of veterans said the department was doing an excellent job meeting the needs of military veterans; 37% said the VA was doing a good job. About half said it was doing only a fair (37%) or poor (15%) job.

Americans continue to see veterans’ services as an important priority. In a March 2019 survey, a 72% majority of U.S. adults (and identical 72% shares of Republicans and Democrats) said that if they were making the federal budget, they would increase spending for veterans’ benefits and services – the highest share of all 13 program areas included in the survey, except for education (also 72%), and the second-highest level of support for increased spending on veterans services since the Center first asked the question in 2001.

Katherine Schaeffer  is a research analyst at Pew Research Center.