Will Sunak's national service create a divide between the generations?

Recent polling suggests Gen Z are more liberal than ever and are resistant to military service, while older generations are split.

Prime Minister Rishi Sunak meeting veterans at a community breakfast in his constituency in Northallerton, North Yorkshire, while on the General Election campaign trail. Picture date: Saturday May 25, 2024.
Rishi Sunak meeting veterans at a community breakfast in his constituency in Northallerton, North Yorkshire on Saturday. (Alamy)

Rishi Sunak has said 18-year-olds would have to carry out mandatory national service if the Conservative Party win the next general election on 4 July.

In an unexpected policy move, the PM said young people would be given a choice between a full-time placement in the Armed Forces or spending one weekend a month for a year “volunteering,” in their community.

The prime minister says the measure would help unite society in an “increasingly uncertain world” and give young people a “shared sense of purpose”, while home secretary James Cleverly said it would address the "fragmentation of society" and get people who "live in a bubble" to mix with people from all walks of life.

The armed forces option would be selective – with some 30,000 placements for “the brightest and best”, the Conservatives suggested. Teenagers who choose the forces would “learn and take part in logistics, cyber security, procurement or civil response operations”, the Tories said.

Sunak's proposal is widely being viewed as a pitch to older voters, who, according to polling are more open to the idea of bringing back national service. But will the idea wash with Gen Z voters, who according to research are more liberal than ever and are much less likely to sign up to serve the Army.

Recent research by the National Centre for Social Research shows that Gen-Zers – those born 1997-2012 – "are half as likely as adults overall to believe that the law should always be obeyed" (16% compared to 32%).

It also finds that Gen Z are "more willing to express their strong moral convictions through civil disobedience than other generations" – none of which bodes well for Sunak's plans to force them into national service.

The study shows that 31% of Gen-Zers believe that young people today "don't have enough respect for traditional British values", compared to 52% of the general population. Only 40% thought that schools should teach children to obey authority, compared to 60% overall.

It ranks Generation Z as by far the most liberal of the generations, and they are expected to "remain more liberal than previous generations, even as they age; entering work, having children, and settling down".

Gen Z are far more liberal than preceding generations, according to recent data. (National Centre for Social Research)

Could Generation Z's increasingly liberal and anti-authoritarian views have anything to do with the Armed Force's struggle to meet its recruitment targets?

Former defence secretary Ben Wallace made this suggestion in January, telling LBC that the reason for declining recruitment numbers was down to not enough young people signing up to serve.

He told LBC Radio: “Generation Z is not joining the armed forces in the way my generation did. And, post-Covid, skill shortages in engineering and all sorts of things are a real challenge.”

Writing for the radio station's website, news producer Connor Hand, himself a Gen Zer, suggested that younger people would be far less likely to approve of conscription in the event of a full-blown conflict – for example if other countries were dragged into the Ukraine war.

"I simply cannot see Gen Z or millennials accepting this; conscientious objections and civil disobedience would be abundant," he adds.

"To be clear, this is not a lazy caricature of much-maligned generations. The reality is, given the unspeakable horrors that global conflict would ignite, they will rightly question why their blood must be spilled to compensate for the failures of successive governments to properly defend our national security interests."

Figures suggest Gen Z are much more resistant to authority and are more open to civil disobedience if they believe something is wrong. National Centre for Social Research)

Last year, Admiral Sir Ben Key, the First Sea Lord, told The House magazine that expectations in the workplace have changed, with younger people more likely to change employers more regularly – which could help to explain the Royal Navy's recruitment issues.

He adds that Gen Zs are used to "near permanent connectivity" with their loved ones, which "cannot be met if you are in a submarine".

According to YouGov, support for national service schemes is lowest among 18-to-24-year-olds, although this group still has net support for all voluntary schemes.

The Conservative Party has said that the non-military aspect of its proposed national scheme would only be compulsory for the first 25 days, although the government hopes this will trigger a "lifelong commitment to volunteering" among many.

When it comes to compulsory military service, just 10% of 18-to-24-year-olds said they would support it, while 78% said they would oppose.

Support increases among every subsequent age group, reaching a maximum of 46% among those aged 65 and above. This generation appears to be split, with 46% saying they would oppose this scheme.

Younger generations strongly oppose the idea of mandatory military service, polling shows. (YouGov)

Just two days before the Tories announced their national service scheme, a defence minister suggested the idea would be unworkable.

Andrew Murrison said there were “no plans” to restore the policy, saying that it could damage morale if “potentially unwilling” recruits were forced to serve alongside armed forces personnel.

His remarks were in a statement on behalf of the government responding to a written parliamentary question published on Thursday – after Sunak had called the election but before he'd announced his national service policy.

Younger Britons are more open to voluntary schemes, figures suggest. (YouGov)

Mr Murrison, who served for 18 years as a medical officer in the Royal Navy and was recalled as a reservist for a six-month tour of duty during the Iraq war, warned the move could negatively impact recruitment and retention and would "consume professional military and naval resources".

“If, on the other hand, national service recruits were kept in separate units, it would be difficult to find a proper and meaningful role for them, potentially harming motivation and discipline," he added.

“For all these reasons, there are no current plans for the restoration of any form of national service.”