Princeton sociologist Robert Wuthnow evidently has the data and he’s not afraid to use it. From his new book After the Baby Boomers: How Twenty- and Thirty-Somethings Are Shaping the Future of American Religion:

“…unless religious leaders take younger adults more seriously, the future of American religion is in doubt…. Younger adults are already less actively involved in their congregations than older adults are. Not only this, younger adults are currently less involved than younger adults were a generation ago. The demographics behind this declining involvement also do not bode well for the future. Religious involvement is influenced more by whether people are married, when they get married, whether they have children, and how many children they have than almost anything else. Religious involvement is also shaped by how committed people are to their careers and to their communities. All of these social factors have been changing.”

Most of the reviews and blog commentary that I’ve seen is a direct reaction to this, usually from people who find it worrisome. But as a recovering sociology major, I also enjoyed Wuthnow’s takedowns of popular and journalistic thinking about generations:

“…there is simply no evidence that younger adults currently have been decisively shaped by a particular historical event in the same way that the baby boomers were by the Vietnam war or by their parents waiting until after World War II to marry and have children… The other reason for being skeptical of generational language is that popular usages of it strain to draw contrasts with baby boomers, but in doing so are misleading. For instance, one reads in the popular literature that the millennial generation is supposedly defined by an interest in small fellowship groups that meet for prayer and Bible study during the week at churches or in homes. But precisely the same argument was made about baby boomers and, in fact, research has shown that baby boomers did gravitate to these groups.” 

Read the whole first chapter here. Wuthnow’s own data groupings pay even less respect to the “boomer” vs. Gen X rhetoric. Usually he compares people born between 1953 and 1981 (“younger adults who were between the ages of 21 and 45 in the years from about 1998 to 2002”) with those born 1927-1955.

More than one blog commenting on this links to a recent David Brooks column. Not having read the book yet, I’m not sure Wuthnow would care for the association. It’s also been reviewed in Christian Century .