Join the army? Life chances and social class among young men

I’ve been reflecting on education, class, young men, and the army. Fiona Aldridge, research officer with NIACE, triggered this off when she remarked that her study of rank and file soldiers had shown a population with the same educational characteristics of prisoners. This in turn made me brood on what we, as a society, expect from the lives of our young men.

Faced with Iraq or Afghanistan, or Iraq, it is all too easy to see military service as a high risk activity. And so it is – but is it any more risky than growing up male and working class in cities like Middlesbrough, Portsmouth, or Glasgow?

To be able to answer that question accurately, we’d need to produce age-standardised mortality rates for young males, broken down by class and educational background – and then compare civilians with soldiers. I am afraid that the results would be horrifying, and would suggest that serving on the front line is a lot safer than entering adult life at home.

This is a very uncomfortable thought. And it gets worse. Our society tends to blame lifestyle and family background for poor health; yet death rates among the young from such factors as smoking have fallen steadily in the last thirty years. But as Sir Harry Burns has pointed out, death rates from socially-related factors among young males in Scotland have risen in the last thirty years.

In general, higher death rates among young men result from violence, self-harm, alcohol and drugs. Suicide is the main cause of premature death amoung young men (who are about four times as likely to die by their own hand as young women). To these we can add driving a car, which for young men is far more likely to kill you than riding a bike. And of course there are suicides and substance abuse among soldiers as well, but apparently these are much less common than among the comparable population in civilian life.

So the bottom line seems to be that the army offers young working class males a much better future than does civilian life, at least in the short term, even in a time of conflict. We shouldn’t find this too surprising in a society like ours. After all, as Jay Winter has shown, life expectancy rose in Britain during both world wars; even for young men, the Great War was less lethal than peacetime.

I’m not advocating war rather than peace. What I am suggesting is that we need to see our supposedly peaceful civilian lives in a rather different way. Ordinary, everyday life is extremely harmful to a large and important part of our population, yet we seem to fetishise deaths in military service, and comfortably ignore the far higher toll of those who die while simply growing up.

Changing that will mean giving young men far more control over their own lives, and giving those lives some positive meaning. That will require a massive improvement in their educational outcomes, as well as realistic prospects of meaningful work in adult life.