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Voluntary Instead of Military Service – Young People Working for the Common Good

There is a widespread opinion that young people today are an indecisive generation concerned only with their personal benefit, that they prioritize family and friends over work, and that they like to meet demands with a refusal to cooperate, because they are mollycoddled by their parents. And yet little evidence can be found to support this view – either in quantitative empirical research or if we look at the commitments that young people take up. Criticism of today’s young generation is far more a reflection of the critic’s viewpoint than a fair assessment of the young people themselves. In this article, I report on a number of studies, looking at whether they can tell us why most young people, when they leave school, turn to other areas of activity than those in the German armed forces (Bundeswehr).

Shell Youth Study 2015

Shell Youth Studies have been conducted for many decades. Young people (currently those between 12 and 25 years of age in eastern Germany, and those aged between 14 and 25 in western Germany) are asked about their values and attitudes, and about their life goals and what they perceive as threats.1 

In the horizon of values of young people, it is striking that they simultaneously emphasize duty and acceptance values, on the one hand, and self-fulfillment values, on the other. Over the last five years, agreement with the item “Respect society and order” has increased from 81 to 84 percent, with the item “Help the socially disadvantaged and marginal groups” from 58 to 60 percent, and with “Be politically active” from 23 to 32 percent. Whereas respect for society and order can be classed as a duty value, helping and political involvement can be interpreted as self-fulfillment values.

Ever more young people are “doers” (31 percent of young men, 32 percent of young women). The number of “idealists” among both sexes is increasing (30 percent of young women, 20 percent of young men). The number of “materialists” among both sexes fell in recent years (24 percent of young men, 14 percent of young women), as did the number of “procrastinators” (25 percent of young men, 24 percent of young women). To the “doers” as much as to the “idealists”, both diligence and ambition – again, these are duty and acceptance values – as well as imagination and creativity – self-fulfillment values – are particularly important. Both groups want to help the socially disadvantaged.

The Shell Youth Study asked several questions about the respondents’ jobs. It turns out that job satisfaction is particularly dependent on soft factors that are linked to the meaningfulness of one’s own actions. While job security is particularly important to 71 percent of young people, 58 percent want to contribute their own ideas in their working environment. The young generation’s dual value orientation can be seen in these two statements, too: while they are committed to the existing work system, they are also focused on self-fulfillment. These are closely followed by agreement with the item “Opportunities to do something meaningful.”

When asked what they are afraid of, young people mainly fear terrorist attacks (73 percent) and a possible war in Europe (62 percent). Given this expression of fears, it is noticeable that only few young people hold the use of military force in high regard (questions did not specifically mention the Bundeswehr). Most young people are by no means certain that military force is helpful in what they currently experience as a confusing world. Thus, 49 percent agreed with the item “Military intervention only makes things worse”, whereas 19 percent disagreed with this item (24 percent partially agreed/disagreed). 41 percent do not want to “Make a military contribution to ending wars in the world,” whereas 29 percent can envisage doing so (23 percent partially agreed/disagreed).

If one wanted to appeal to this generation of young people and persuade them to join the Bundeswehr, then one should, above all, discuss the meaning of military service and make them aware of it. It is scarcely possible to attract this generation with material incentives, a work–family balance, or special opportunities for promotion. This generation’s main interest is their perceived self-efficacy. Self-efficacy is achieved by someone who contributes their ideas to a greater whole which is interpreted as being meaningful. The military is obviously not seen as being such a context. No doubt this has something to do with the fact that the focus of military action has moved away from national defense in the genuine sense – approval of this is very high among the German population2 – toward the deployment of soldiers in remote parts of the world. It is understandable that many young people do not regard the Bundes­wehr’s deployment in Afghanistan as a success, particularly since even hard-won, secured territory was recaptured by the Taliban. The young generation’s skepticism about the military is therefore entirely comprehensible.

And yet, as the Shell Youth Study also shows, military skepticism can by no means be equated with political skepticism. On the contrary. Politics is not so remote to the young people of today as it was to the previous generation. The authors of the Shell Youth Study even identify a “trend reversal in political interest”: interest in politics increased from 30 percent in 2002 to 41 percent in 2015 (although during the 1980s, it stood at just over 50 percent).

Volunteering by young people

As can be seen from the boom in volunteer opportunities of all kinds and their immense popularity in Germany, young people are highly willing to engage in socially desirable, political, helping, or environmental activities. Volunteer services of this kind have existed for nearly 60 years. To begin with, the voluntary social year (Freiwilliges Soziales Jahr, FSJ) was invented by Christian groups. It was young men’s duty to do military service, while women would volunteer for charity work. Then increasing numbers of recognized conscientious objectors did alternative civilian service in various public welfare projects, in the churches, and, from 1990, in environmental projects. The abolition of compulsory military service and therefore alternative civilian service as well, effective July 1, 2011, was taken by politicians, legislators and charities as an opportunity to establish a broader basis for volunteering in Germany. Every year, the new Federal Volunteers Service (Bundesfreiwilligendienst, BFD) and the various youth volunteer services attract several tens of thousands of young people.

Volunteers generally receive no more than pocket money throughout their assignment. What is most important for participants in these programs, according to the volunteers themselves, is the opportunity for personal development (as well as the need to bridge a period of time). Apart from educational events offered for their own development, volunteers are also required to attend political education events. Anyone who serves as a volunteer contributes to the common good and actively shapes the community. Such civic engagement by young people in every case underlines the taking on of responsibility toward the community.3 The Bundeswehr does not offer young people any similar opportunities for identification with the meaning of the organization and their own action within it, and it does not offer courses in personal development or political education (although a certain number of hours are provided for political education in the context of Innere Führung). The Bundeswehr only rarely invites civic engagement, or development engagement, even though the idea of the common defense of democratic civil society and of the liberal way of life would suggest that it should.

Young people and the Bundeswehr

According to press information, there are difficulties finding suitable young people to fill the 12,500 places that are available each year on the voluntary military service (Freiwilliger Wehrdienst, FWD) program – with officer candidates in addition to this.

Why the lack of interest in volunteering in the Bundeswehr? It cannot be that young people are currently in such single-minded pursuit of their career with another employer that they do not have time for such a commitment. After all, every year tens of thousands of young people have time for voluntary work. The lack of interest is more likely explained by the Bundeswehr’s image, which has changed profoundly in several respects in recent years: the deterrent force, to be deployed (in the worst-case scenario) in defense of the homeland, has become an internationally operating combat force, fighting alongside its allies against terrorists. And the second fundamental change is that compulsory military service for all young men was suspended in 2011 and is not likely to be reintroduced anytime soon. These two changes give the Bundeswehr a new public image, and make it appear in a whole new light to young people. Anyone who now volunteers to join the Bundeswehr basically agrees with its working principles (command and obedience) as well as overseas deployments. Anyone who wishes to join the voluntary military service program for more than 12 months has to sign a contract stating that they are willing to take part in an overseas deployment (without being able to opt out of a particular deployment location). But since the opinion prevails among young people that the use of military force does not have positive consequences, there is no reason for them to choose to volunteer in the military. Although the authors of the Shell Youth Study have observed an increased interest in politics among respondents, this does not appear to benefit the Bundeswehr. It would appear that in the eyes of young people, it lacks that which is particularly important to them – in other words, the possibility for self-efficacy and hence the experience of meaning.

A 2012 survey of volunteers in the FWD program found that almost half of respondents complained that their military service lacked meaning.4 Self-fulfillment and personal development are not values that young people associate with working in the Bundeswehr. On the contrary, the Bundeswehr tends to construct the profile and image of its soldiers in terms of weapons (e.g. regular firing practice, the use of weapons as a unique feature of the Bundeswehr), whose collectively organized use is supposed to produce positive effects. Similar arguments are made by military sociologists and historians5 who essentially do not want to take sufficient account of the Copernican revolution that the guiding principle of Innere Führung represents for the Bundeswehr. Instead, they emphasize the straight line between the elimination of the enemy by soldiers of the Wehrmacht and those of the Bundeswehr. Because the use of lethal force is a focal point of public debate, because “combat deployments” and “task forces” are discussed, and because these actions have no discernible success, respondents in the Shell Youth Study have their doubts about making such a commitment.

Bundeswehr campaigns aggressively advertise that service pay is two to three times higher than the pay received by those who complete a voluntary social or environmental year. But since there tends to be a low proportion of materialists among young people, many are likely to feel that this advertising does not appeal to them. Although Bundeswehr brochures also advertise the “strong team” that new soldiers will temporarily work in, and expressly welcome “personal commitment,” everyone knows that lower-ranking soldiers are the ones who have to do what other people order them to do. In the brochures for the voluntary military service program, one searches in vain for any formulation that corrects or undermines the expectation of joining a strictly hierarchical organization.

Does this outcome of the comparison of voluntary military service with other volunteer programs indicate a negative social development – or is it perhaps a credit to young people in Germany? Despite constant media reports about youth violence, and ever-increasing reports about the self-radicalization of young people who become suicide attackers and jihadists, to most young people, the idea of countering terrorist violence with military force is an alien one. This skepticism about violence unites them with large sections of German society, with their parents and grandparents. Although young people state that they fear war and terror, they do not want to counter either with military means.

Nevertheless, Germany’s civilian-oriented society needs soldiers for its defense. Ultimately, “society and order” should be respected, and – here we can again refer to the Shell Youth Study – this is an opinion that most young people share. Starting from this observation, the responsibilities of soldiers in the Bundeswehr should be discussed publicly in more detail as part of a proactive debate on meaning. It is not enough to put old wine in new bottles and post new claims for the advertising campaigns.


1 Cf. the results at und accessed February 29, 2016) Charts available at:;

2 Biehl, Heiko, and Giegerich, Bastian (2011), “Wozu sind Streitkräfte da? Einstellungen zu militärischen Aufgaben,” in: Strategische Kulturen in Europa. Die Bürger Europas und ihre Streitkräfte. Ergebnisse der Bevölkerungsbefragungen in acht europäischen Ländern 2010 des Sozialwissenschaftlichen Instituts der Bundeswehr (eds. Heiko Biehl et al.), Forschungsbericht 96, Strausberg, pp. 59–73, here p. 61.

3 The German Bundestag’s Study Commission on the “Future of Civic Activities” explains the “intrinsic meaning” of civic engagement as follows: “Civic engagement is a form of activity that, as compared to other activities such as gainful employment, has its own logic of action. The core of an ‘intrinsic meaning’ of civic engagement lies in the particular form of activity and motivational factors.” In: Bericht der Enquete-Kommission “Zukunft des Bürgerschaftlichen Engagements”. Bürger­schaftliches Engagement: auf dem Weg in eine zukunftsfähige Bürgergesellschaft. Deutscher Bundestag. 14. Wahlperiode. Drucksache 14/8900. June 3, 2002, p. 38. Persons aged 27 and over can participate in the Federal Volunteers Service.

4 Kramer, Robert (2014), Evaluation des Freiwilligen Wehrdienstes. Ergebnisse der Zweitbefragung der Freiwilligen Wehrdienst Leistenden mit Diensteintritt im Zeitraum von Juli 2011 bis April 2012. (Forschungsbericht 108). April, 2014, pp. 12, 21, 23 ff.

5 Apelt, Maja (2006), “Militärische Sozialisation,” in: Militär und Sozialwissenschaft (ed. Sven Bernhard Gareis and Paul Klein), 2nd edition, Wiesbaden, pp. 26–39, here p. 26, and Nägler, Frank (2010), Der gewollte Soldat und sein Wandel. Personelle Rüstung und Innere Führung in den Aufbaujahren der Bundeswehr 1956 bis 1964/65 (Sicherheitspolitik und Streitkräfte der Bundesrepublik Deutschland 9), Munich.


Prof. Dr. Angelika Dörfler-Dierken

Angelika Dörfler-Dierken is project manager for the subject area “Innere Führung – Ethics – Military Chaplaincy” in research field IV “Security Policy and Armed Forces” at the Center for Military History and Social Sciences of the German Armed Forces (Zentrum für Militärgeschichte und Sozialwissenschaften der Bundeswehr, ZMSBw). From an ethical, historical and social science perspective, she deals with current issues that are of concern to soldiers – with regard to their professional self-image, their integration into society, and their implementation of the guiding principle of the “citizen in uniform” in a democratic society and culture. She also investigates issues that result from the contradiction between the use of military force and German soldiers’ commitment to serving peace in the world. Dörfler-­Dierken teaches at the University of Potsdam and at the University of Hamburg. She has numerous publications to her name.

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All articles in this issue

Professional Soldiers and Citizens in Uniform
Donald Abenheim, Carolyn C. Halladay
Bundeswehr Without Cohesion. Negative Developments in Innere Führung
Elmar Wiesendahl
What’s the Matter with Innere Führung?
Uwe Hartmann
Innere Führung and Global Integral Competence
Kazuma Matoba, Bernd Küstner
Innere Führung and Civil Protection – Keyword "Mission-Type Tactics"
Dirk Freudenberg
Leadership in Multinational Military Organizations – the Example of SHAPE
Gregor Richter
Integrity, Moral Courage and Innere Führung
Peter Olsthoorn
Ethics Versus Efficiency – What Military Leadership Can Learn from Business
Detlef Aufderheide
Innere Führung – Leadership Culture in Camouflage
Zentrum Innere Führung
Voluntary Instead of Military Service – Young People Working for the Common Good
Angelika Dörfler-Dierken


Thomas von Buttlar Hans-Peter Bartels Peter Wendl Rabea Haß Gerhard Kümmel