Religion in America Is Dramatically Different for the Children of Baby Boomers
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How have the dynamics of intergenerational relationships about religion changed over the thirty-five years since the beginning of this study [which began with Baby Boomers, their parents, and their grandparents in 1970]? In the context of the many demographic and cultural changes that have occurred during the time between then and now—increases in marital instability and single parenting, a growing cultural emphasis on individualism, declining adherence to religious traditions, media-driven youth cultures—has there been a significant change in the degree to which families exert influence in the religious orientations of younger generation members?
Changes in American Society
During the 117 years represented by the birth dates of family members in this study, many events have combined to change the nature of American Society. Wars, disruptive economic trends, globalization and technological innovations, changes in culture and political values—these and more have altered the lives of successive generations of study participants. Many of the oldest immigrated to the United States at the beginning of the twentieth century; subsequently, they experienced the massive cultural and economic ups and downs of World War I, the Roaring Twenties era of prosperity, and the subsequent economic devastation of the Great Depression.
Then came World War II and the dislocations it created for everyone involved in the war effort, including most young men and women. The economic prosperity and stability of the postwar period provided an era of seemingly inexhaustible growth and expansion. This soon gave way to the political and cultural changes of the 1960s when the first wave of Baby-Boomer youth launched protests challenging the politics, values, and lifestyles of their elders. The term “generation gap” became a byword for the social unrest during this decade, since it appeared that American society was becoming divided along lines that separated the younger generation from their parents and grandparents.
About this time, in the 1960s, social commentators began calling attention to the growing secularization of American society, prompting heated public debates about the role of religion in education, politics, and mass communication. In the decades to follow, collective and humanistic values appeared to give way to an ethos of individualism and self-fulfillment and a devaluation of community. This was a trend that seemed to be leading to what Robert Putnam famously called “bowling alone”—from collective, community-based activities to those pursued by solitary individuals acting almost in relative isolation compared to their peers in earlier decades. In the years following 2000, it appeared that stock market and real estate speculation, predatory lending, political polarization, and a growing gap between the very wealthy and the middle and working classes were symptoms of a decline in communal values and the rise of self-interest to new heights. Because of this, many people today assume that the value accorded in the past to intergenerational continuity has eroded, a casualty of cultural changes involving greater individualism. But is this the case? Throughout Western history, during times of rapid social change, two social institutions have often served to buffer individuals from the uncertainties resulting from unanticipated events: the family and religion. Does this hold true today?
Changes in American Families
Since World War II, there has been unprecedented change at the most intimate level of American society: family life. The rate of divorce increased slowly through the first half of the twentieth century and then rose dramatically over the next few decades. By 1990, one out of every two marriages ended in divorce, and by the end of the century, almost as many children lived in single-parent households—most headed by mothers—as in dualparent households. Of those children in two-parent households, one-quarter lived in “blended” families with stepparents and stepsiblings.