Over the last 4 years or so, a team of us have been doing a piece of research looking at how Reservists manage the task of being both a civilian employee and a Reservist. In the next couple of weeks or so, we will be mailing out to a number of Reserves units a short briefing document on the research, and a copy is also available here.
During the research, we did a large number of interviews with Army Reserve, Royal Naval Reserve, RAF Volunteer Reserve and Royal Marines Reserve participants. One of the really striking things across these interviews was the amount of time and effort that these personnel put into the work of both being a Reservist, and following their civilian career.
It was striking how many Reservists wanted to maintain quite a stark distinction between their identities as military personnel, and their identities as civilian employees. All our interviewees took great pride in their military participation, but sometimes found it hard to convey the detail of what they do, and why they do it, to their civilian colleagues. Efforts to do so were often met with bafflement, scepticism or humour. As a consequence many Reservists were reticent in discussing their military identities and Reserves participation when in the workplace, playing down or even concealing their membership of the Reserves.
This reality of Reservist life is interesting when put in the context of the Future Reserves 2020 plans when they were originally set out. These plans identified the expansion of the Reserves as a means of developing greater civilian awareness of the armed forces and defence. That wasn’t the primary purpose of the plans – but it is there in the documentation. For example, the original White Paper implied that the FR2020 plans might be one of a number of mechanisms that could be used by the then Coalition government to address what it saw as the widening disconnect between the military and civilian worlds. (There’s a lot more to say about civil-military relationships here, not least the history – going back to Options for Change – of political anxieties about this, the many ways in which this changing relationship has been visible or not, and the ways that binary thinking has obscured some more interesting ideas about this relationship – but I’ll save all that for another blog post.) These ideas about the role of the Reserves in developing civilian awareness seemed to contrast quite distinctly with what Reservists themselves told us, when they talked about the work they put into maintaining their identities as Reservists and how this might include silence or reticence about their service when talking with work colleagues.
It seemed to the research team that a more detailed appreciation about this identity work – and we use the word ‘work’ deliberately to reflect Reservists’ serious commitment – was needed by senior policy-makers. It may be the case that the demands of maintaining a Reservist identity are well recognised by senior individuals in the Ministry of Defence and the armed forces. After all, many of these people are themselves Reservists. But we wonder whether policy interventions and strategies on the Reserves reflect that understanding. The idea that you should know your people was one that came back to use, time and again, when we conducted the research interviews and read through the transcripts.
Understanding Reservists as members of the workforce and understanding the work they do, not just in terms of employment but also in terms of identity work, seems to be critical to addressing some of the tensions around Reservists in the workplace, and ultimately to the future sustainability of FR2020.
The ‘Keeping Enough in Reserve’ project was conducted by Rachel Woodward (Newcastle University), Antonia Dawes (University of Bristol), Tim Edmunds (University of Bristol), Paul Higate (University of Bath) and K. Neil Jenkings (Newcastle University.