After the Baby Boomers by Robert Wuthnow
Mark Twain popularized the phrase “There are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies, and statistics.” I’ve always kept this in mind any time I come across a statistic or figure, which these days is pretty much constantly. Statistical data is one of the primary means in our culture for demonstrating the validity or importance of what sort of shoe to wear, what toothpaste to use, and what your neighbor thinks on any number of issues. I don’t trust ‘em. So reading an entire book by a social scientist based on statistics was rather unpleasant. For those of you who are fascinated by the interpretation of numerical data, this book might be fascinating. Otherwise, it’s going to hurt. Regardless, you aren’t likely to learn more than that nothing is certain. I’m guessing many of you already know that.
Wuthnow’s basic premise is that much of what is stated, observed, or asserted about the post-baby boomer generations is based on very little reliable evidence, and what evidence there is might be misinterpreted. Using a combination of outside statistical data as well as his only surveys, Wuthnow sets out to examine some of the common trends and issues ascribed to people roughly 21-45 in age.
What follows is, depending upon your particular bent, either extremely fascinating or extremely frustrating. Wuthnow challenges many of the assumptions about post-Boomers, such as that they are leaving the church/faith in droves, aren’t interested in religion, etc. In challenging these things, Wuthnow examines data and provides interpretation of data – but all of it is speculative (as most statistical analysis on people is). Wuthnow often provides multiple scenarios or explanations for a trend such as decreased church attendance, and then attempts to use statistical interpretation to evaluate the various explanations.
Overall, Wuthnow asserts that many of the trends seen in post-Boomers can be attributed to the fact that people are marrying and having children later in life. He sees these two criteria as enormously influential on people’s interest and participation in religious life. Statistically speaking, people tend to attend church more regularly after getting married and after having children. If these two events occur later in life for more and more young people, then we shouldn’t be surprised that it isn’t until their 30’s that some people begin to return to participation in a faith community.
How does this help those of us who are grappling with a missing or shrinking young adult demographic in our congregations? Are we to begin speaking to children about the importance of marrying and having children younger? That’s an interesting idea, though one I doubt most folks are willing to seriously consider. What are other options? How does the church better engage people in their late teens through early 30’s? How does the church deal with people living longer and the whole concept of youth extending to a later period in life? These remain difficult and elusive issues in a time of cultural change. Wuthnow and the data he presents and interprets paint no clear path forward.