Study: 1 in 5 baby boomers increasing faith as they reach old age

Are baby boomers, part of the first generation to lead the contemporary exodus from organized religion, returning to their religious roots?

The ninth wave of a multigenerational study that began in 1971 finds a little more than one in five boomers became more religious in the transition from their 50s to their 60s.

Why the change of heart among baby boomers as they moved from late middle age to early old age?

Older boomers cited several reasons, from seeking solace in life after the death of a spouse to finding other sources of meaning after the loss of a job to a desire to pass on religious beliefs to their grandchildren.

It is not clear if the findings suggest any kind of watershed moment for U.S. religion.

But the study authors noted that reasons relating to coping with loss and sensing an urgency to transmit their faith to earlier generations are only likely to increase as they grow older.

And they can make a real impact on the youngest generations.

Not only are grandparents expected to live longer, more vigorous lives, but new research also finds their level of religiosity can have a significant impact on the faith of their grandchildren.

As in many other realms, the baby boomers will help define the narrative of religion in America to the very end.

Rediscovering faith

Researchers Merril Silverstein of Syracuse University and Vern L. Bengston of the University of Southern California used data from 599 respondents in the 2016 wave of the Longitudinal Study of Generations to assess religious change over the last decade.

They reported the results in the latest issue of the Journal of Population Ageing.

Overall, 56 percent of aging boomers said their religiosity was stable over the period, but 21 percent reported an increase in religiosity. Eleven percent said they were less religious; 12 percent stated they were never religious.

The No. 1 reason given by boomers for increased religiosity was a sense that there was more to life than the pursuit of wealth, social status or any of the material goods lifted up by popular culture as the path to happiness. Nearly two-thirds of more religious boomers said “their interest in worldly things changed.”

In open-ended responses, two in five respondents spoke in terms of a “personal desire for spiritual growth,” “getting closer to God,” and “seeing the power of faith.”

Some form of suffering also was influential for baby boomers who reported being more religious.

Nearly half of respondents who reported a greater faith said they experienced a loss in the last decade.

In an analysis isolating specific factors, researchers found losing a partner, experiencing downward economic mobility and having health problems either increased or kept religiosity stable.

And there was one more important unfinished piece of business: Transmitting their faith to earlier generations.

Fifty-three percent of boomers with increased faith cited concern for the religious development of their children or grandchildren.

A mixed legacy?

The baby boomers, like other generations before them whose faith increased in old age, have some good instincts.

A new wave of research on religion and aging is revealing many benefits of a strong faith in the latter stages of life.

In one study of 1,500 adults 65 and older, prayer was associated with increases in self-esteem, optimism and increased life satisfaction for participants who reported a close, loving, supportive attachment to God.

Other studies suggest religion helps retirees stay mentally fit and can be a critical resource in reducing death anxiety.

In their own research on the transmission of faith, Silverstein and Bengston found “grandparents influence their grandchildren independently of parents, and their influence is stronger when parents’ marriages are intact.”

So, are baby boomers returning to their religious roots as they pass into old age?

“The answer is yes and no,” Silverstein and Bengston stated. “Religiosity is more likely to be stable than to change, but a significant minority report a strengthening of their religious identity during this period of life.”

They said the factors motivating boomers returning to faith are “issues that will magnify as baby boomers advance to later stages of the life course when the salience of religion intensifies and the seeds of religious experiences planted earlier in the life course come to fruition.”

Yet time is running out.

“This may be the last generation,” researchers said, “to have had such widespread exposure to religion in childhood and to have been active religious consumers in their earlier lives.”

Image by The Photographer, via Wikimedia Commons [Public Domain]
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