Explaining the Millennial Meltdown

Baylor’s Research on Religion podcast this week features a long interview with your diarist. This is the second time I’ve been on host Anthony “Tony” Gill’s program (first time here). There’s too much there to even try to unpack in one blogpost, so I’ll stick to one item: the declining church attendance of younger Americans.

Religion in America has always been highly mobile. Indeed some scholars think that is what has made it so effective. Philip Jenkins several years ago put to me the idea that Americans are so much more religiously observant than Europeans because we’re not very rooted.

We move around a lot and need a means of fostering a quick sense of belonging for ourselves and our immediate families. Whenever we move into new places, churches are the most effective institutions at grafting us into the local community.

You may doubt this explanation — I did when Jenkins first shared it with me — but put that aside for now. What do we know, demographically speaking, about younger Americans — Millennials and perhaps late Gen X-ers — that makes them different from their parents?

Here’s my stab at an answer:

1) They’re poorer. This is almost always the case with younger people but the kids these days may be structurally poorer than their parents. They have a much harder time finding jobs and wage growth is pretty slow.

2) They’re more urban. The white flight of the 1970s has partially reversed itself, with a younger cohort pouring back into the cities.

3) They’re less mobile. Fewer have cars and those that do drive them more sparingly.

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