The National Catholic Review
John A. Coleman
There has been a great deal of anecdotal speculation about religious proclivities and spiritual seeking among so-called Generation X, the children of the baby boomers. Robert Wuthnow, a professor of sociology and director of the Center for the Study of American Religion at Princeton University, takes us beyond mere speculation to compellingly firm data. Drawing on an exceedingly rich archival data set of 16 major research studies over the past three decades, Wuthnow compares young Americans age 20 to 45 to the baby boomers when they were that age in the 1970s. The shifts are in many ways startling and not necessarily promising or benign for organized religion.

Here are some of the most salient differences between the two groups. The 105.3 million young Americans (20-45) are less likely to attend church regularly than did their parents generation at the same age. A growing proportion declare themselves to be non-religious and, significantly, many more were born and raised outside of religion. More teenagers and young adults are sexually active now than in the generation of the 1970s, and more have been raised by single parents. A smaller percentage of young adults are active members of congregations (pretty much across the board denominationally) than a generation ago. Young adults change jobs more than they did a generation ago and such early job insecurities feed into their postponement of marriage and having children.

The crucial difference is that young Americans are postponing marriage longer, putting off having children until later, and are likely to have fewer children than their parents. There are more never married in the 20-45 group today than there were in the 1970s (and the never or not yet married are less likely to attend church than the other group, the baby boomers, did when they were young adults). More do not have children when married. A greater ideological polarization is also evident: a majority (54 percent) of young adults declare themselves to be very conservative or very liberal, more so than two decades ago. More than before, church attendees believe and hold moral attitudes sharply diverging from the infrequent attendees or the unchurched.

Wuthnows data remind us that religious involvement, now as before, is influenced more by whether people are married, when they get married, whether they have children and how many children they have than by almost anything else. The married without children and those with children are all more likely to be church members, to be more active in attendance and to be more orthodox in beliefs and practices.

After the Baby Boomers is replete with data and careful analysis and comparisons among: 1) those who are religiously committed and those who are not; and 2) Catholics, mainline Protestants and evangelicals among mainline Protestant denominations. Young adults now represent half of their proportion from three decades ago; the percentage of young adults in evangelical congregations is also down from 30 years ago; 3) Hispanic versus non-Hispanic Catholics; 4) the characteristics of vital youthful congregations (where at least 35 percent of the congregation is 35 years or younger) versus older congregations.

When all this rich and vast data has been laid out, Wuthnow mounts two main arguments. First, he acknowledges there is a kind of institutional surrounding of support for young Americans aged 1-21 parental guidance; day care; schools; welfare programs; family counseling programs; job training; and colleges (with campus ministry). But after 21, in that crucial period when young adults are making life-shaping decisions about getting married, having children and pursuing a career, we provide almost no institutional supports. As Wuthnow notes:

Nearly all the major decisions a person has to make about marriage, child rearing and work happen after these support systems have ceased to function. This is not a good way to run a society. No wonder young adults experience stress and confusion, worry that they are not yet capable of behaving like adults, delay settling down, and often make bad decisions about jobs and money.

The second conclusion is that religious congregations have not done a very good job in attracting and finding out the spiritual needs of the unchurched group of young adults (or irregular attendees). Sociological evidence suggests that religion has far more beneficial than harmful effects. For regular church attendees, it helps to discourage teenagers from using drugs and helps parents be better mothers and fathers and keep marriages intact.

It would be hard to fault Wuthnows contention that American congregations need to focus more intentionally on ministries to young adults (instead of investing so heavily in programs for children, parents and the elderly). Religious leaders need to reflect much more seriously on what might attract more young adults to church.

John A. Coleman, S.J., is Casassa Professor of Social Values at Loyola Marymount University, Los Angeles.