Last week in a NYT opinion column deliciously titled, “After Ruining Mayonnaise, Can Millennials Save America?” the author, Timothy Egan, wondered if the soon-to-be largest generation would save us from ourselves? Most urgently by voting.
Egan says that in the 2014 mid-term elections only 16% of those 18-24 voted. In 2016 it barely reached 50%, compared to 70% of baby boomers. Because nearly 60% of Millennials are Democrat or leaning Democrat and only 17% Republican, they would swing most elections.
About the Millennials he writes drolly: “Too many have checked out of the whole citizen-power thing. You can blame the lack of civics education during their formative years, when not enough of them studied the owner’s manual of democracy. Now it’s a pain in the butt, an afterthought, or OMG is there an election?” Except it’s not funny.
I just spent the weekend mixing with four dozen Millennials; a dozen at a book event and the rest at a party which included my own four children. Mostly I am a fan of this generation. They are quirky, earnestly oriented toward being connected within a community of friendship, more racially and ethnically diverse and integrated than any generation before it, and seriously committed to a progressive social agenda aimed at a better distribution of resources.
I wish they were more interested in church but they are highly skeptical of organized religion. They may be on the right track there. By all reports they have grown up as sophisticated consumers, cynical about anyone or anything “selling” to them. They like clever and creative commercials and will even watch them online for fun, but to the consternation of Madison Avenue they don’t follow the bait. They have as much spiritual thirst and curiosity as any previous generation, but they are not buying the idea that such knowledge is only accessed from the teats of a social club membership.
Social club has been the primary prototype of organized religion for a long time now, at least in Christianity in the U.S. In a 2006 study (Kosmin & Keysar, quoted in “Religion, Class, and Denominationalism in the US” by Joerg Rieger: divinity.uchiago.edu) Unitarians had a median family income of $58,000, Episcopalians $55,000, Methodists $48,000, Church of God $26,000, Jehovah’s Witnesses $24,000. But that is not the whole story according to Rieger. Each denomination is also splintered within itself by class, with socio-economics greatly influencing which congregations have the most influence within the denominational structure. In other words, religions are not only subdivided by associations of the like-minded, but often cohere around income and education levels too. When Martin Luther King, Jr. said Sunday morning was the most segregated hour in America, he was referring to race but it’s also true of class.
Millennials sniff that out. This overt classism in contrast to the more egalitarian messages voiced by prophets ancient and modern, just does not feel like a promising source of spiritual wisdom and guidance. There are of course exceptions, both among Millennials and religious congregations, but I suspect the decline in organized religion will continue until congregations figure out how to become as diverse and integrated as the Millennial generation itself, and then even more so.