Partner employment and military to civilian transition

This article originally appeared on LinkedIn

Employment is a key feature of military transition programs. Here in Australia we have job search preparation workshops, coaching, supportive employer programs and even an employment awards program at the highest level of government. There is broad understanding that employment is an essential part of veteran wellbeing. According to the Psychology of Working Theory decent work fulfills the human need for survival and power, social connection and self-determination. It’s not just being employed that is good for you but the quality of the work matters.

What continues to surprise me is that despite the fact that many ADF members transition out of the ADF with a family, and that families are becoming a bigger focus of transition efforts, that we don’t seem to make the connection between ADF partner employment and transition.

In 2018 I made a submission to the Parliamentary Inquiry into Transition from the ADF on the importance of partner employment to successful transition from the ADF. My recommendations were that we increase efforts to focus on the whole ADF family and engage families in transition preparation as early as possible and maintain engagement; and to increase employment and career support for civilian spouses of ADF personnel. More effort should be directed toward creating and sustaining healthy families throughout their ADF life, thus preparing them for transition. This includes the employment of both ADF member/veteran, and their partner.

Consider two families. In Family A the ADF member is the primary breadwinner and the family is almost entirely reliant on the ADF salary. The civilian partner works, but their career pattern has been marked by periods in and out of employment due to Defence relocations and heavy caregiving responsibilities (including during members work-related absences). The family has little in the way of savings because they have been for the most part a single-income family. Depending on career priorities and preferences the civilian partner may be suffering from known ill-effects of unemployment and underemployment. The civilian partner may be excited about the opportunities that transition (and associated geographical stability) may have for their own career options. However, years of working outside their preferred career field and multiple gaps in employment continue to present some systemic barriers to meaningful, gainful employment. Being the primary breadwinner is placing additional stress on the transitioning member at a time when they may already be experiencing heightened emotions and anxiety at the prospect of leaving the ADF. From a financial standpoint they are considering what they need in salary to continue to survive, especially in light of the benefits they will lose including member healthcare and subsidised housing. If the member is transitioning on medical grounds they may have diminished earning capacity which adds to the financial and emotional stress. The priority for the family is to get the transitioning ADF member a job – any job – to pay the bills. Considerations such as whether this job will fulfill the member and families other needs (including personal fulfillment) are secondary, as is consideration of whether this path will support the veteran’s longer term employability and wellbeing.

Now consider Family B. The ADF member and the partner have both been employed in jobs that provide good income, accommodate paid and non-paid work life roles, and provide a good quality of life. Whether by choice or not when the time comes for the ADF member to transition from the ADF the family is in a good financial and emotional position. They have enough income, and enough savings, to tide them over while the ADF member finds decent work (or a path toward it) that will fulfill their requirement for survival, social connection, and self-determination; and thus a successful post-ADF life. The ADF member/veteran has the time and space to consider career options and to find work that aligns with their strengths, skills, experience, interests and values (which we know is important to career satisfaction). The civilian partner is able to share their knowledge of the civilian world of work and help the ADF member/veteran build their civilian workplace cultural and social capital by sharing this knowledge and making connections within their own professional network, whilst maintaining their own employment.

I am quite certain that the transition experience of Family B will be far superior to that of Family A. And that Veteran B will have longer term employment success. And that the health and wellbeing of Veteran B will be far superior than that of Veteran A. Which begs the question why, when there is an emphasis on veteran employment, health and wellbeing are we not addressing it more holistically? We’ve made great strides in recent years in treating the transition from the ADF as a process rather than an event. However, all we’ve really done is stretch it out a couple of years rather than viewing it as a process that begins at the time the member joins. As a result we are missing the opportunities that the years in between recruitment and discharge offer for preparing members and families for life after the ADF. This includes providing an environment where ADF partner careers (and dual income ADF families) can thrive, and where ADF members gain valuable career development life skills as a matter of course rather than a crash course when leaving the ADF is imminent.

The 2017 Forces in Mind Trust transition mapping study reports that “the leavers who had ended up with the most choice about their post-Service life had working spouses who were willing to give them time to identify what they wanted to do post-transition“. It also reports that “The vast majority of leavers are of working age. Some are in the fortunate position of not needing to work (because they have a tax-free lump sum and a pension, and working spouses/partners), but most have no choice but to enter the job market, and for a significant number of these leavers the initial employment prospects are uncertain. The route to the right kind of work is often uneven“.

Researcher in the US this year found that longer period of unemployment insurance increased the quality of employer-employee matches, decreased mismatches between the educational attainments of workers, and the educational requirements of the job, and resulted in higher earnings.

So in news that won’t shock anyone interested in career development – people who have more time to consider their options as a result of decreased financial pressure to meet their basic needs find better jobs and have more satisfying and rewarding employment.

You can read detailed accounts of my recommendations in my Churchill Fellowship Report on partner employment, my submission to the Parliamentary Inquiry into Transition, and on my website. But briefly:

  • Bring partner employment support out from underneath mobility in Defence Family Support Policy. It’s far more than a mobility issue.
  • Address the systemic employment barriers ADF partners face such as heavy unpaid domestic and caring work, geographical instability and employer bias. Individual support is great, but we have to fix the system, not just the individual.
  • Provide ADF members with career development support as part of their career progression. Don’t lump it under “transition” support – it’s much more than that. Career development skills are important professional and life skills that everyone needs to learn and develop over their lifetime from a young age. Providing them under the transition umbrella diminishes them and sends the wrong message to members.
  • Improve the work life balance of ADF members with greater flexibility. This not only supports partner employment (by reducing partner unpaid work loads) it will have benefits for ADF members as well in terms of health and wellbeing, social connections, and building social capital. I ask all my clients what community engagement activities they take part in and I’ve lost count of the amount of Other Ranks Army members who’ve told me they don’t have time. Work is an important part of life but it shouldn’t be everything. And if it is, you can imagine the challenges that arise when that work ends.


  1. Unpaid work including caregiving work is work. It is absolutely a viable and valuable career option. But it remains undervalued in society and as a result we cannot ignore the impact that engaging in domestic and caring work has on individual and family wealth and financial security.
  2. Partner employment is an issue of concern in and of itself for the same reasons it is important to support the employment of veterans – a moral obligation to offset the negative impact of military life, and the importance of good work to health and wellbeing. But as I’ve outlined here it is also a facilitator of veteran employment. That doesn’t meet we should promote the narrative of partners as props and supports but it does argue for taking a holistic, systems approach to member/veteran and family wellbeing.

Further Reading:

Duffy R, Blustein D, Diemer M et al (2016). The Psychology of Working Theory. Journal of Counseling Psychology 63(2) pp 127-148

Military Families and Transition. Centre for Social Justice

The long-run implications of extending unemployment benefits in the United States for workers, firms, and the economy

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