My Research Blog

McDermott (2009)‘Struggling on Civvy Street’

Public  Service Review: Transport Local Government and the Regions Issue 8.


A lot has been written about ex-soldiers falling on hard times and becoming a burden on the state, but little about those who are employed and settled in civilian life. Studies about ex-service people, however, frequently remark that ‘most do well’. This is good news, but why? Are there identifiable factors dictating success or failure? In search of an answer, I interviewed 50 former army NCOs and WOs, each with 22 years’ service who had found themselves at the age of 40, civilians, too old to be apprentices yet too young to retire.

Concentrating on the British Army, this sociological study researched the process of transition from military to civilian life. Study of human socialisation examines how people’s perceptions, belief systems and behaviours are determined by their positions in social space. Despite increased media coverage of armed conflicts and documentary television programmes, the military exists largely unseen by most civilians who will know little of how armed forces people are trained, live, work and play. Consequently, ex-soldiers entering the labour market can be misunderstood and their skills and knowledge undervalued. These different life perspectives can create a barrier that the soldier nearing discharge must be aware of and overcome. This transition is not unlike a civilian redundancy (although it should come as no surprise) and soldiers can experience the same anger, frustration, sadness and fear of the unknown. The period of transition and after, dubbed the ‘Military Mental-Pause’, was the focus of this research. In-depth interviews and personal biographies probed ex-soldiers’ careers, self-perception, feelings about working and communicating with civilians, resettlement, employment, financial and family issues and the effects of military service on their personal lives.
Data was subjected to narrative analysis and the participants, both men and women, represented ranks from corporal to WO1 and had served in the infantry, artillery, armour or combat support. The self-reportedly ‘successful’ participants represented service in every decade from 1940 to 2005. Despite a generally held view, ex-soldiers do not gravitate to security jobs, but find employment in a wide spectrum of activities. A few do work in security but as well paid managers. Others found careers in the civil service, the police, aviation, forensic science, the automotive industry, in education, the legal profession, engineering, the Post Office, management in the charity sector and the NHS. One former WO, managing the security of a large Middle East company, spoke of earning a salary “…equal to the GDP of a small country”. Some had jobs completely different from their army role.

The research findings indicate that most of these ex-soldiers dislike the term ‘veteran’ and also that they feel ‘different’ from civilians. Working for the common good of the regiment – for example, mutual support and team work – was replaced, they felt, by poor communication, backstabbing and clock-watching, and a stampede for the exits at the end of the day.

Work ethic featured prominently in the participants’ views of how the attitude of civilians was different. Former NCOs and WOs acquired confidence through the multiplicity of challenges presented by military service and through leading and managing other soldiers. This creates a notion, reinforced during military service, that getting the job done, regardless of difficulties, is what is most important and where the frustration and conflict of work cultures most visibly manifests. For the most part, ex-soldiers accepted that civilian workers do not work and think in the same way as they do and gradually modified their own approach to work but without compromising on their own standards.
Following discharge, ex-soldiers needed to adapt their jargon-laced language. However, they still continue to believe that civilian knowledge of the military is limited. Employers who did understand what ‘warrant officer’ meant took some persuading that there was more to the role than shouting and shiny boots; that deploying an infantry patrol in a war zone or controlling high value stores, for example, were tasks at least equal to being responsible for an office building, 20 staff and a photocopier.

The research identified a confused image in the minds of civilians, due, some participants thought, to a focus on those needing care. The Veterans’ Agency caters for those needing help and this is also the focus of the great work done by The Royal British Legion. This focus on care, important as it is, may add to the lack of understanding by presenting ‘veterans’ as people with problems.  However, this fact should not be interpreted as a complaint voiced by any of those interviewed; rather, that a successful transition for many was made without a lot of help from military sources and that a certain amount of pride is taken by many ex-soldiers in the fact that they just got on with the job of ‘getting out’ and ‘getting on’.

Many ex-soldiers continue to practise the skills and attitudes learned in the army. The ability to quickly assess a situation and take appropriate action appears in stories of taking charge to deal with minor office disasters. On the other hand, some found that, when managers and colleagues knew their background, this marked them out to organise sports and quiz teams, the annual works do or to get projects moving, something they were clearly good at.

Early preparation for army discharge eases the transition process to civilian life and this involves early acceptance of the end of a well-loved career, the loss of friends, (for some the most difficult part) status, regular salary increases, continuous training, an interesting job, sport and travel. For some this meant seeking out sources of funding and fully exploiting education and training courses as early as three years before discharge. Those with combat experience spoke of both shock and horror, but also of excitement and the feeling that they had been part of something important. Several participants voiced a surprising complaint evidenced in every decade from 1950 up to and including 2005, namely that of the poor quality of resettlement advice whilst they were still serving. Those who complained did so in the same scathing terms, regardless of the era in which they had served, perhaps indicating that, whilst there have been tremendous improvements in the way that ‘resettlement’ is organised and delivered ex-discharge, there exists a continuity of unchanging practice pre-discharge spanning many decades. The commonest complaint was aimed at the officers, frequently described as ‘passed over majors’ and ‘out of touch’, holding a miscellany of regimental appointments including resettlement.

Without exception, the participants all felt that their time in the army had been a great experience. None appear to have suffered as a result of theservice and saw leaving the army as a life stage from which they had moved on. Indeed, for the most part the notion of ‘feeling different’ from civilians expressed by some appears to emanate from the strong sense of self confidence gained through long military service. The soldier who, for whatever reason, leaves the army prematurely will not necessarily have either sufficient experience or the confidence of the full career soldier. He or she returns to a civilian life merely interrupted by military service, a period of interruption during which they will have lived within the so-called ‘dependency culture’ of the military.

Starting civilian life at the age of 40 was found by most to have been a challenge, but one largely overcome by their experiences and well-practised people skills. The ex-soldier generally maintains a disciplined approach to life and a strong work ethic. Whilst most reject any notion that they are not fully ‘civilianised’, it is clear that full disengagement from military society is only ever partially achieved, and the former rifleman, sapper or whatever  remains different in the way that he or she associates with others in civilian society. Notions of problematic institutionalisation for those who serve in the armed forces seem more likely in those who serve in the military for short periods. Whilst young soldiers become old soldiers, their adjustment to becoming civilians is never complete.
In the current uncertain economic climate, mid-life service leavers can have an edge on their civilian counterparts and potential employers will be interested to know that NCOs and WOs do not spend all their time shouting but are, by contrast, excellent managers of people and resources.

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