- After the Baby Boomers: How Twenty-and Thirty-Somethings Are Shaping the Future of American Religion
How can congregations be vital and relevant given current changes in the demographic and religious landscapes of the United States? In After the Baby Boomers, Robert Wuthnow highlights the major forces shaping religious change in the United States – the time crunch, demographic changes, religious pluralism – and places young adults (21–45) at the center of understanding what these transformations mean for religion in America. Why young adults? For one, the absolute and proportional size of this cohort ensures their relevance (this group makes up at least 40 percent of adherents of every major faith tradition in the United States). But beyond sheer numbers, young adults matter because they are determining the future of religious organizations. While older adults are more religious by nearly all traditional measures (attendance, giving, volunteering, religious salience), young adults are more actively shaping where American religiosity is headed, and according to Wuthnow, their trajectory should trouble religious leaders of every faith tradition.
Many important contributions have been made by scholars who “find religion” well into their careers, but in After the Baby Boomers, Wuthnow has “found demography.” In identifying seven key trends for understanding young adult life, nothing is more important than contemporary changes in family life – specifically delayed marriage and parenthood – for explaining the declining involvement in religious communities among this cohort. Other factors such as globalization, social networks and the information age play a role in Wuthnow’s portrait of young adult religious life but are secondary to demographic factors, which are by far the most critical determinants.
Cohort-based explorations of religious life in the United States (e.g., Wade Clark Roof’s Spiritual Marketplace and Smith and Denton’s Soul Searching) have made important contributions to the sociology of religion in recent years, and Wuthnow’s latest book is no exception. Arguing that a disproportionate emphasis on the graying of the American population is misguided, he re-directs the focus to young adults – the group he sees as a more accurate cultural barometer. Wuthnow goes beyond documenting the patterns of religious involvement among young adults in quantitative terms and explores the ways in which young adults are religious. Unlike the culture-wars approach that pits the orthodox against the irreligious, Wuthnow focuses on the space between. A majority of young adults are tinkerers, bricoleurs, dabblers, religious amateurs who [End Page 2214] draw from multiple traditions, bridging seemingly orthodox tenants of faith with relativistic concessions for civility’s sake. Thus religious leaders who provide canned answers are irrelevant to this group, as are congregations with programming agendas that move from high school youth groups to couples Bible studies. Wuthnow shows that most congregations are alarmingly out of touch with the needs of young adults, leaving them without institutional support during a critical period of life.
The evidence employed in After the Baby Boomers involves the exhaustive use of many sources of data – all detailed in the Appendix – including survey data from 13 different sources. The limitations of the quantitative analyses (e.g., strong reliance on differences between age groups, which complicates distinguishing between cohort and period effects) are aptly acknowledged throughout this book. The data collected specifically for Wuthnow’s National Young Adult and Religion Study consists of approximately 100 in-depth interviews about religion and spirituality conducted with clergy and young adults from various traditions and positions on the spectrum of religious involvement. The voices and views of those interviewed, primarily young adults navigating the terrain of contemporary religious life in the United States, make infrequent but poignant appearances. When used, these data are rich, lending strong anecdotal support for the patterns that bar graphs throughout the book clearly illustrate.
Wuthnow’s most acute insight lies in his concern about the sudden and near complete absence of institutional support for young adults in the United States. After being virtually inundated in such support throughout childhood and adolescence, Wuthnow points out that young adults navigate...