Ask questions in the Newbie Thread at /r/airforcerecruits
A question that seems to be asked more frequently these days goes like “I’m 30 years old with a wife and kid, should I join the Air Force?” This is partly due to the economy still being poor and some people finding it hard to make ends meet, and partly due to the Air Force recently raising the maximum enlistment age from 39 to 42, opening up new possibilities for people that thought they were too old to join.
I personally joined at 25, having had over a dozen civilian jobs in a wide range of industries and capacities before joining. I had already been married, owned a house, owned a business, had some dogs, etc. So that’s where my experience is coming from as you read this.
The first question to ask is why you are considering joining the Air Force. I personally joined for education benefits and clear and consistent career progression. I had a lot of jobs before joining, but none of them presented many career opportunities. They were either working for a family-run business where you won’t get promoted without some blood relation to the family, or in a position in a corporation that didn’t have many opportunities to move up.
The Air Force will definitely set you up with an education, and definitely provides clear and relatively fair career progression, so it was a good fit for me.
But it may not be a good fit for everyone. You’ll have to consider your personal situation carefully, and hopefully some of the information I provide on this page will help you make your decision.
BMT will be your first challenge in joining as an older individual, and a big part of BMT is physical exercise. You will be doing PT with 18 year olds, and be expected to participate in the same training and complete it the same way. Final graduation fitness standards are however adjusted for your age, so that will make it a little easier (if you’re over 30).
I would also say a lack of sleep may be harder on an older person, but from what I hear from recent graduates, they get plenty of sleep these days.
As an older person you may also have to change some habits that will be more difficult to change than it would be for a younger person. For instance there is no caffeine at BMT, so if you’re a heavy coffee drinker you’ll have to learn to function without it. Same for smoking, drinking, eating favorite foods, etc.
Mental challenges will probably be a bigger issue for most people than physical challenges. After all, if you’re thinking of joining the military, hopefully you are in reasonable shape or at least have a plan to get there.
You’re going to be around a bunch of 18 – 20 year olds while in BMT, Tech School and for the rest of your Air Force career. They will be your peers and co-workers. In the Air Force you will mostly be treated according to your rank, not your age, so even though you may be the same age as most tech sergeants, you will be treated like every other 18 year old airman. Needless to say this can be extremely frustrating at times. The young airmen may still be in a rebellious phase, having just graduated high school, and will make stupid mistakes that are easy to avoid (usually by keeping their mouths shut). In BMT and tech school, you will usually be punished along with them, despite (hopefully) having the maturity to keep your mouth shut and follow orders.
It can be difficult to relate to people significantly younger than you with less life experience, but you’ll be lumped together with them anyway.
Your supervisor when you get to your first base will probably be younger than you. Lieutenants and possibly even captains will be younger than you. It can be tough taking orders from someone significantly younger than you, with less life experience and wisdom. But they have more military experience and rank, so you’ll have to do it anyway.
Reduction in freedoms
As a 30 year old adult you likely lived on your own, had your own stuff, did what you wanted when you wanted. As a single airman in the military, you will be living in the dormitories with everyone else for approximately the first three years or so. The dorms are similar to a college campus, you’ll usually have your own small room, but share a common area, possibly a kitchenette and bathroom with another airman.
During BMT you can’t drink, have caffeine, or smoke cigarettes. During tech school you can drink once you’re of the appropriate phase, but there are restrictions on it. You’ll be able to have caffeine and smoke at tech school, though you can’t smoke during duty hours while in tech school. Once you get to your first base, most of these restrictions are completely lifted.
If you’re already married, you can live off base or in family housing at your first base and even during tech school if it is long enough.
For some people age may be a physical advantage. You may be more fit than the average high school graduate if fitness was a big part of your life before the military. You may be more used to functioning on a high level with less sleep. I probably would have had more trouble functioning on the four to five hours of sleep you get at OTS as an 18 year old than I did as a 31 year old, but it could be the opposite for others.
This is your biggest advantage in my experience. You’re (hopefully) more mature and wise than the average enlistee. If you’re joining later in life, you’ll probably appreciate the benefits of military service that someone straight out of high school will not. You’re more confident and will see through the mind games of BMT easier. You can draw on a wealth of life experience to solve problems, relate to others, and make it through any challenge you face. You’ll likely be more willing to put up with the silliness of BMT, because you can appreciate the benefits of the end goal.
Once you get to your base and start working, you may be treated slightly differently than younger airmen, as long as you prove yourself. Even if it’s sub-consciously, those above you may treat you with a little more respect and trust you with more, or even expect more out of you since you’re older. You can quickly prove them wrong by screwing up or making poor decisions, but the opportunity is there to really stand out above your peers quickly.