Generation X-ers — people born between 1965 and 1972 — are bucking previous demographic trends by becoming less religiously affiliated and less Republican even as they’ve aged, according to one of the biggest surveys of American religiosity.
The data released Thursday by Trinity College also show the percentage of Gen X-ers who call themselves Christian dropping by 10 percentage points in the period looked at, 1990 to 2008. In 1990, when Gen X-ers were ages 18 to 25, 85 percent of this group said they were Christian; the number dropped to 75 percent in 2008.
The analysis of Gen X people, who are today 40 to 47 years old, is the latest slice of data released from the massive American Religious Identification Survey, one of the country’s biggest demographic polls. It was done in 1990 with more than 113,000 people and again in 2008 with more than 54,000 people.
Barry Kosmin, an author of the study, said the data reflect the fluidity of American religiosity, with people more likely to switch their religious affiliation than their political party. While Gen X-ers are only a segment of the population, they make up many of the parents of today’s middle- and high-school children, he noted.
“This is good news for marketers and political consultants; it shows people can be persuaded, they change their minds,” he said.
The ARIS study seems to challenge what has been a core truth of American demographics: That people become more politically conservative and religiously affiliated as they age.
“Everything we find here is counterintuitive,” he said.
The study’s findings about Gen X-ers are broadly similar to national trends in Americans overall: the falling away of hundreds of thousands of Catholics, the middle ground of faith shrinking as the poles grow.
This generation, following the second Vatican Council of the 1960s, was “the most Catholic generation America had ever seen,” Kosmin said; 33 percent of Gen X-ers in 1990 said they were Catholic. Today, 26 percent of Gen X-ers say they are. The study estimates that 700,000 Gen X-ers left Catholicism during this period and were only partially replaced by Catholic Latino immigrants.
The faith groups that grew during this period were what religion experts call “the poles,” because they tend to be opposites politically and in their view of religion. Those are non-denominational Christians, a group which grew as a percentage of Gen X-ers — from 12 percent of the population to 16 percent — and people who say they have “no religion,” a group that grew from 11 percent to 16 percent of the Gen X generation.