This past week, Lake Institute hosted our Distinguished Visitor, Alan Cooperman, Director of Religion Research at Pew Research Center, to discuss the rise of the religiously unaffiliated. At the same time, we hosted a number of focus groups to consider what leadership and institutional engagement looks like across the generations. In hosting these groups, we partnered with Dr. Patricia Snell Herzog and her team of researchers as a part of her national Emerging Leaders Study. As a leading scholar in the fields of emerging adulthood and generosity, I have asked Dr. Herzog to share her reflections with us in this edition of Insights. We often worry about the “graying of the church,” described by declining affiliation among younger generations (aka religious “nones”), but what if millennials are changing the ways that faith is expressed? Studies show belonging is declining, but Dr. Herzog explains that phenomenon within a broader context of changes to organizational participation.. - David P. King, Ph.D., Karen Lake Buttrey Director, Lake Institute on Faith & Giving
Let me offer a few reflections on an incredible week spent in partnership with the Lake Institute on Faith and Giving. The sheer amount of activities the phenomenal team at Lake hosted during the past week is a testament to their rich intellectual contributions and ability to graciously host a vibrant and growing community of scholars. With insights to mull over for weeks, even months, to come, I offer a few initial thoughts on how the themes of the week fit together.
The first set of reflections is about a talk given by Lake Institute Distinguished Visitor Alan Cooperman, Director of Religion Research at the Pew Research Center. In his lecture, “The Rise of the Religiously Unaffiliated: Why the ‘Nones” are Growing & Why It Matters,” Cooperman described that the proportion of people in the United States who report no religious affiliation has been rising in recent decades. The trend is the same in almost all survey data. For example, measured through the General Social Survey (GSS), the religiously unaffiliated rose from 5 percent in 1972 to 21 percent in 2014. Inversely, Protestant affiliation declined from 62 to 48 percent in the same time period. For the first time in U.S. history, less than half of Americans affiliate as Protestants.
We found in the National Study of Youth and Religion that when tracking the same cohort from adolescence to emerging adulthood, American Millennials are mostly stable (57 percent) in their religiosity over time – meaning if they entered adolescence high, they stayed high; or if they entered low, they stayed low. A small proportion (7 percent) increase in their religiosity, but there is a net decline (37 percent) as young people transition to adulthood. Taken together with the trends across cohorts described by Alan, there is a compounding rise in the religiously unaffiliated.
However, these trends need to be understood within a broader context of disengagement. Robert Putnam, among others, finds again in his recent book, Our Kids: The American Dream in Crisis, that declines are ubiquitous across various measures in basically any kind of organizational participation, including charitable giving, volunteering, voting, and so on.
Likewise, my colleague Heather Price and I find in our book, American Generosity: Who Gives and Why, that participation in any one form of generous activities is low – with 45 percent of Americans not giving to charitable causes, 75 percent not volunteering, and 87 percent not taking political action. Yet, when looking across diverse forms of generous activities, we find a brighter picture – that 90 percent of Americans give through any one of the nine forms of generosity we study.
Our hypothesis in that study was that people can act on their desire to give through a variety of forms. This is not exactly a new idea, as even the oft-said “Time, Talent, and Treasure” implies that there are multiple forms of giving. But it is still a relatively new approach in social science research to treat these forms of generosity as interchangeable. Financial giving and volunteering often dominate, with other forms of advocacy, political action, of neighborliness falling a distant second.
Having found initial support for the interchangeability of giving forms across different segments of the population, I am now curious about the extent to which this may be even more the case among younger generations. Reflecting on the trends in declining organizational participation, I wonder to what extent we social scientists may be finding declining trends that are answering a question new generations are not asking, nor would even understand.
Here is my reasoning. First, what we have seen in trends over time is empirical evidence of a decline in participation in what are commonly called “brick-and-mortar” organizations. For example, leading sociologist Tom Smith finds that young Americans are the least engaged, affiliated, and organizationally involved of any generational cohort alive today. However, this is not something particular to the third sector, but is rather a broad societal trend. Forbes, for example, has reflected on similar changes in the retail industry. Indeed, e-commerce has been “giving a make-over” – or perhaps a facelift is a better analogy – to the formerly widespread business model of physical, in-store sales for years.
Second, while I am no expert on retail, my sense of being an educated reader of recent news on the business sector is that a general concern about how the Internet is remodeling sales and other industries has mostly subsided to a focus instead on how given e-commerce is an inevitable part of the future of business, how can it develop less as a way to sustain profit but rather as an integrated way of life.
I am interested in applying these ideas to the third sector, perhaps reframing a narrative of decline and instead demonstrating we may merely be in the midst of a change to the way that people organize. Here I draw upon insights from the growing field of researchers studying a relatively new life stage called emerging adulthood. Keep in mind that “new” here is quite relative, as the coining of the stage occurred around 2000, which is “ancient history” to my Millennial students.
Based on the fact that most Millennials report not having anywhere that feeling of a sense of belonging, and their low rates of organizational participation, I am turning my attention away from the organizationally biased terms of religion, volunteering, education, and business to the activities underlying these organizational structures – giving, believing, learning, working. Also borrowing from the infamous, at least in sociology of religion circles, phrasing of Grace Davie – “believing without belonging” – I thus ask on behalf of the Millennials I study: What is belonging in an Internet-mediated form of activity-based organizing? Without clear answers to that question, declining rates of participation may be a methodological artifact produced by outdated questions that focus solely on organizational participation as expressions of meaning-making activities that may instead move to more fluid Internet interactions.