Americans regularly overestimate how large their military is, as well as exactly how many of their fellow Americans serve across the various branches of the Armed Forces at any given time. But by that same token, they don’t think much at all about how many families—spouses, children, and other dependents—also “serve” alongside the one in the actual uniform, or about the issues, challenges, and opportunities that military families face daily.

When the draft ended in 1973, about 1% of the population served in the military, compared to less than one-half of the 1% who do today. Then, the active component of the military, excluding the Coast Guard, comprised 1.9 million men and women. The most recent peak was in 1987, but since then, the military has shrunk by 38%, only growing or shrinking 3% or less in any given year over the past twenty years, despite America fighting two wars in the Middle East and numerous other terrorism-related situations around the globe. 

Today’s military employs 1.3 million individuals in active-duty service. The National Guard and Reserves together have an end strength of around 800,200. Overall, the Department of Defense (DoD) employs an additional 807,000 civilians and 400,000 service contractors in defense-related work. When counting its “military family,” DoD puts that number at 5.2 million all told, between the service members and their families.

As stands to reason, across the total DoD force, there are more family members (54.6%) than military personnel (45.4%), though the percentage of at least active-duty family members has decreased compared to 2005. Looking exclusively at the active-duty component, the DoD’s latest numbers reveal that 50% of those who are serving are married, with 35.4% of these having children, compared to 46.1% who are single and without children. Of the former, approximately 2.4% have a dual-military marriage with children. And among those who are single (there are about 52,000 individuals in this category), about 5.6% have children. Across all the service branches on active duty, officers are more likely to have children (65.3%) than those enlisted (47%). 

Here, it is perhaps helpful to remember that the minimum age for initial entrance into the military is 17 and the maximum age allowed by law is 42, although that can vary by service branch and over time. Consequently, about 40% of service members are age 25 or younger, while 61% are age 30 or younger—precisely those years when many individuals attempt to or begin to form families and raise children.

Overall, there are nearly 1 million “active duty” children, 74% under eleven years old. Over 90% of military spouses are women, although 9.5% are men. However, and of growing concern to military families themselves and their advocates, only about 50% of civilian spouses hold employment, despite their average age being 32 years old. (Among only active-duty forces, nearly one-half of spouses are 30 years of age or younger.) 

As with any large group of people, the reasons for this are varied. But there are a few constant factors that military families necessarily face that disrupt their lives in ways that render traditional employment difficult for them. For starters, military families move on average every two to three years, which particularly impacts military spouses and children in terms of having to leave or change homes, jobs, schools, and support networks. (In military lingo, this mandatory relocation is called “PCSing”, for Permanent Change of Station.) This every-few-years process makes it difficult for military spouses to pursue traditional career paths. 

Two additional factors here are the reality of the military member being deployed away from their family and the costs of child care. In Blue Star Family’s most recent Military Family Lifestyle Survey (the most extensive survey of military families that currently exists), eight out of ten active-duty family respondents had been separated from their family or service member in the past 18 months due to military service, with 31% having been separated for a total of six or more months. With only 24% of active-duty families being able to find child care that works for their situation, it is less surprising that one in three active-duty spouses who are not working report that it is because child care is too expensive. 

For some military spouses, the question of the education of their children also factors into their decision to remain outside of the traditional workforce. Around 13% of active-duty families reported to Blue Star Families that they were homeschooling at least their oldest child, with the top reason being to help stabilize their child(ren)’s educational experience. 

Given all of the above, it is no wonder that the top five concerns of active-duty families (ranked in descending order) in 2021 were military spouse employment; amount of time away from family; dependent child(ren)’s education; relocation/PCS issues; and military pay, and that of the three top contributors to their financial stress, spouse un- or underemployment ranked first (followed by student loans and out-of-pocket relocation costs).