Locked at home and taking online classes, 20-year-old Kyle Choi decided where he would live during the pandemic: in the armed forces of South Korea.
Choi, a university student in Seoul, anticipated his plans to complete his compulsory 18-month military service. As a student of environmental engineering, he feared that virtual education would not provide critical experiences for his education. So, at the end of December, he volunteered for military service in this city in the central region of the country.
“You have to go, anyway,” he said. “You can still go now.”
Around the world, the number of military enlistments is increasing, as young adults seek refuge from the pandemic that has limited employment opportunities, social life and traditional education. Enrollment often includes benefits such as free health tests, treatments, and vaccines against the virus. Social detachment has made certain facets of military life less difficult.
Canada saw a 37% increase in military service registrations in the last nine months of 2020, compared to the previous year. For the full year, Australia grew 9.9% from 2019. The UK met its annual recruitment target last spring for the first time in seven years and is on track to do it again this year, according to a government spokesperson.
The United States Army saw about 92% of its able-bodied personnel re-enlist for the year ending in September. The previous year was 83%, said a spokeswoman.
This dynamic is even stronger where military service is compulsory. About a third of the 191 countries included in a 2019 Washington-based Pew Research Center report have active military recruiting.
In South Korea, more than 195,000 young people submitted applications to begin basic training in the first four months of 2021, a 44% increase from the previous year, according to an analysis of public figures by the Wall Street Journal. This is probably the biggest annual increase since the government started compiling the number of candidates in 2008, a South Korean government spokesperson said.
In Israel, young people do not have the choice of enlisting, often after high school. But more of them are asking to extend the military period by several months as civilian job openings dwindle due to the pandemic, according to the Israel Defense Forces.
Times of economic downturn have always led to more calls for military conscription, a trend that benefits national defense, said Beth Asch, an economist at Rand Corp., a group of non-partisan thinkers based in Santa Monica, in California. With fewer job opportunities in other industries, the number of better-quality hires in the United States has increased during periods of high unemployment in economic recessions, military data showed from 1984 to 2017.
In the years surrounding the 2008 financial crisis, the U.S. Army, Marines, Navy, and Air Force were able to increase the number of recruits who scored more than 50% on the Armed Forces Qualification Test, a standardized examination which measures linguistic and mathematical aptitude. techniques, according to Asch’s research. The proportion of high-quality recruits has increased across all forces, with the largest leap in the Air Force at around 20 percentage points.
“Better quality of troops means a higher percentage of them serving beyond the usual time, quick learning and better interaction with others,” Asch said.
The pandemic has hit young workers in particular. In 2020, around 8.7% of people aged 15 to 24 either lost their jobs or left the workforce entirely – more than double the rate for older people – according to a January report from the International Labor Organization, a United Nations body.
In South Korea, the economy lost a total of 218,000 jobs in 2020, and the youth unemployment rate exceeded 8% in December. Seoul’s government has succeeded in limiting the outbreaks of Covid-19, and exports have rocked the country’s economy, but job growth has stagnated.
This led many to enlist before the age required for compulsory military service. It has also made some previously overlooked positions competitive. Nearly twice as many men registered as mechanics in army engineer units in April, compared to the same month last year.
More than 60% more applied to be workers in the construction of army camps from April. The demand to become an army cook has increased by 30%.
Lee Jae-sung, who entered South Korean military service late last year, was a role model when Covid-19 began to develop a year ago. Work quickly dried up with the cancellation of fashion shows. Lee reluctantly decided to join the military to escape the economic crisis.
“I couldn’t even say goodbye in person,” said Lee, 23, who would love to be an actor when the job is finished. “I hope the coronavirus is gone then.”
Even amid the pandemic, some facets of military enlistment remain the same. At the gates of a South Korean military base in Nonsan at the end of December, Lee Jae-hoon, 20, was holding his girlfriend’s hand. Faced with the competition, he did not expect to be accepted as a helicopter mechanic. It was only a few minutes away from familiarizing yourself with the basic training.
The couple have talked about what they will do during their separation. “Are you going to write to me?” Lee asked. The girl responded with a smile.