The first chapter of Wuthnow’s After the Baby Boomers highlights the ways in which the upcoming generation of young adults is different from their parents and how the trends lead to an uncertain future for American religion.
Baby boomers influenced American religion “in sheer volume” and are quickly becoming the most active church members, biggest contributors, and loudest lamenters that things are not as good as they were in the past. Though the younger generation is a smaller percentage of the population, Wuthnow believes the future of American religion “is in the hands of adults now in their twenties and thirties.”
But the entire idea of “generations” needs to be revisited. Wuthnow sees the boomer concept of generations as being “largely defined by some major event or attribute” that people share in common. This way of defining generations has led to the Builders, Boomers, and now “Busters,” “Millennials” etc.
Wuthnow is skeptical about using this method of describing younger adults. First, he sees no evidence that younger adults are shaped by historical events in the way their parents were. (The reason why history so shaped the boomers is because they affected family and personal life.) Second, the popular usages of generational language causes people to sharply contrast the younger generation with the boomers, a practice that is misleading because it does not recognize both differences along with the continuities that exist.
Why does Wuthnow includes people up to their mid-forties when discussing younger adults?
People are living longer now than before, which has moved the midpoint of adult life to age 49. The additional years of “younger adult life” have caused many to wait longer to start families, decide on a line of work, etc. Younger adults are postponing developmental tasks that used to take place earlier in life.
Wuthnow points out how society provides institutions for the support and socialization of those not yet considered adults (elementary and secondary schools, for example). Unfortunately, by the time a person turns 21 or 22, the institutional support for the developmental tasks disappear. Younger adults are on their own, having to “invent their own ways of making decision and seeking support for those decisions.” The absence of attention on twenty and thirty-somethings has forced young adults to be individualistic.
Young adults approach religion and spirituality as “tinkerers” – those who put together a life “from whatever skills, ideas, and resources are readily at hand.” Tinkerers are eclectic, refusing to rely on only one way of doing things. Predefined solutions do not help them resolve problems.
Another term that Wuthnow employs is bricolage – “the joining together of seemingly inconsistent, disparate compoments.” Younger generations are looking for answers in a variety of places, yet many are content in their seeking and uncertainty.
What does this mean for religion? Wuthnow is not optimistic. He sees the statistics showing how younger adults are less involved than those of a generation ago. Religious involvement is not based in conviction as much as commitment to career, family and community. The mainline churches have declined, not so much due to their liberalism, but to the demographic change and falling birth rate of people in these denominations.
Tomorrow, we take a look at chapter 2 – The Changing Life Worlds of Young Adults.