The More Things Change

Review of After the Baby Boomers: How Twenty- and Thirty-Somethings Are Shaping the Future of American Religion by Robert Wuthnow.

Patton Dodd
1 January 2008

After the Baby Boomers: How Twenty- and Thirty-Somethings Are Shaping the Future of American Religion
By Robert Wuthnow
Princeton University Press, 2007; 320 pp.; $29.95 (cloth)

As a thirty-something white middle-class North American male, I’ve been hearing about myself for a long time. Douglas Coupland wrote a novel about me in 1991, calling me “Generation X” and giving an assist to thousands of lazy admen—think “The sport drink for Generation Xtreme” or “The cell phone for Generation NeXt.” Then there have been the movies about me. Ben Stiller’s Reality Bites, Cameron Crowe’s Singles, Wes Anderson’s The Royal Tenenbaums, and virtually everything that Richard Linklater has ever done are just a few of the flicks that have announced their about-me-ness. Lots of other things have been about me, too. Grunge rock. Coffeehouse culture. Friends. Volkswagen marketing.

Hearing so much about myself, I’ve learned to expect the stuff I like to be made in my image. I have an iPod and iPhone and other iThings. The whole World Wide Web is one big MySpace. It’s my world, really, and you’re all just living in it.

So it stands to reason, doesn’t it, that if I want religion, I want it to be all about me, too? From Coupland on, it has been commonplace to assume that if contemporary young adults like me embrace a religious faith, we choose one that talks directly to us (rather than to God or toward a tradition) and that satisfies us (instead of our community or people in need). We’re used to the world conforming to our desires, so why should religion be any different? And if it can’t be, why bother with religion?

Religious leaders know this is the crisis they are facing. Talk to your local spiritual guides, check out the conferences they attend and the professional books they read, and you’ll find that they know young adults like me are mysterious, grouchy beasts, and that we cannot be relied upon to faithfully carry religious traditions into the heart of the twenty-first century.

It is with those long-suffering religious leaders in mind that Robert Wuthnow, the renowned Princeton sociologist, began his most recent book, After the Baby Boomers: How Twenty- and Thirty-Somethings Are Shaping the Future of American Religion. Wuthnow shares the concerns of religious and spiritual leaders because, as a sociologist, he understands the great benefits religion provides society—general cohesion, motivation to care for the needy, and support of stabilizing institutions such as marriage and family. If young adults today are less likely to be religious than past generations, then future generations might be worse off. Our numbers alone are staggering: We make up half of the United States population. We are larger than the baby boomers. What we do is what the world will become. If we’re avoiding religion, religion is going to suffer.

To read Wuthnow’s precise study of today’s young adults is to have the crisis clarified. But it’s also to be disabused of the normal assumptions about what makes young adults tick. Sort of. After the Baby Boomers is a work of social science, filled with charts and graphs and interpretation of hard data that paint a detailed picture of the lives of young adults today. That picture both checks our stereotypes about young adults and religion and confirms that some of our assumptions are correct—but not for the reasons we’d expect.

First, Wuthnow shows that the things that are said about my generation—roughly, people who were twenty-one to forty-five between the years 1998 and 2002—were also said about the generation before this one and are already being said about the generation to follow. In other words, when it comes to asking what makes young people tick, we’re in a bit of rut. Read Tom Wolfe’s “The Me Decade,” an essay about the 1970s, and you’ll see thematic connections with what you believe about young adults today. Keep going back, to Jack Kerouac’s On the Road (1957) and Nathaniel West’s The Day of the Locust (1939) and T.S. Eliot’s “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” (1915), and you’ll see descriptions of emerging generations past that look an awful lot like this one.

Still, Wuthnow shows that there are crucial differences between young adults today and previous generations. Things have changed. People are living with new professional and economic realities— globalization and technological advances mean new anxieties for some, new opportunities for others. Higher education is more common—still only the minority graduate, but it’s a growing minority. Social connections are formed differently—by networking technology rather than backyard fences, for example. And young adults are living with an information explosion, the effects of which no one yet quite understands.

These are substantial differences that shape the lives of young adults today. But the irony at the heart of Wuthrow’s study is that the more things change, the more they stay the same. If young adults are religious, they are religious for much the same reason their parents were. Young adults who go to church or seek religious community usually do so after getting married or having children—in other words, when their lives begin to resemble those of their parents.

That said, people today are getting married and having children later, and a growing number are choosing not to do these things at all. So on the whole, today’s young adults are less likely to be religious. For people interested in making their faith communities open and available to more and different types of people, this is bad news indeed. Shouldn’t religion transcend one’s life status? Shouldn’t it inform the life of a single young urban professional just as much as the life of a stay-at-home mother of three? If not, doesn’t that make churches, synagogues, temples, and spiritual centers of all kinds mere communities of the married-with-children?

Wuthnow urges his readers—whom he imagines to include ministers and religious teachers as much as his fellow social scientists—to focus on these realities. Religion is for everyone, and it’s up to religious practitioners and leaders to make their faith traditions accessible, rich, dynamic, and applicable. Wuthnow admonishes religious leaders that if they want to reach young adults, they must realize that the lives of those young adults have a certain shape. Note that shape, he says, and respond to it. Don’t try to fit the round lives of young adults into a square hole.

In other words, show young adults how your faith tradition answers their perennial question: What does all this have to do with me? You may tsk tsk at them for asking that question—and it makes me cringe, truth be told, to admit that I want the answer—but as Wuthnow tells religious leaders, it’s actually a good question, and one they need to know how to answer.

Patton Dodd

Patton Dodd is an editor for Beliefnet and a doctoral candidate in religion and literature at Boston University. He is the author of My Faith So Far: A Story of Conversation and Confusion (Jossey-Bass). He lives with his family in Colorado.