Millennials and Post-Millennials—Dawning of a New Age?

Jeanne Goldberg

Greta Thunberg’s clarion call at the United Nations offers hope that emerging generations will use science and reason to address our planet’s urgent problems.

Baby boomers, who ushered in the proverbial “Age of Aquarius” in the sixties, have held leading positions in government, business, and other spheres of activity for the past four decades or so. Many global and domestic leaders of that demographic feel that they have pursued a progressive and reasoned path as they have tackled a variety of complex issues.

On September 24, 2019, however, Greta Thunberg, a sixteen-year-old Swedish climate activist, delivered a dressing down to leaders at the United Nations. Her remarks, simultaneously passionate and rational, sternly reprimanded them for ignoring the existential threat of climate change by continuing to support fossil-fuel–based energy sources. She expressed anger at the thought that her future—and those of all young people—would be stolen if those in power didn’t take steps immediately to address the threat.

We can hope that Thunberg’s speech at the United Nations will propel leaders to take actions. At the very least, her remarks are thought provoking, bringing into focus the potential galvanizing power of youth and their concern about the health of Planet Earth. As Thunberg’s generation (the post-millennials or Generation Z, born from 1997 onward) and the slightly older generation of the millennials (born between 1981 and 1996) assume roles in our society and, by extension, in global societies, how will they address issues such as climate change? How will they cope with pseudoscience, conspiracy theories, and the war on science? Will they be skeptical inquirers?

The millennial generation, or “Generation Exoplanet,” as Neil deGrasse Tyson has dubbed it (Martine 2014), has taken over the spotlight in recent years as they have matured and stepped into leadership roles. Much has been written about them, attempting to characterize them and to predict the actions they will take on a variety of issues. A critical question is how they will approach issues involving the intersection of science and religion.

The Pew Research Center (PRC) has a wealth of information on our country’s generations, including the millennials, using generational cohorts to study how today’s younger generations compare with today’s older generations when they were young. However, its president, Michael Dimock, sagely notes that “generations are a lens through which to understand societal change, rather than a label with which to oversimplify differences between groups” (Pew Research Center 2019a).

In a carefully researched study titled “Against Generations,” Rebecca Onion gives a historical review of generation theory and concludes that grouping individuals together to form stereotypic profiles (as we do according to their birth dates, for example) is simplistic and irrational, overlooking diversity of race, ethnicity, geography, and life experiences. These stereotypes can even constitute a form of bigotry and lead to intergenerational conflict. Onion cites the work of Karl Mannheim, who stated the importance of recognizing this diversity; she cites the differences between youth in Fairfax County, Virginia, for example, versus those living on the South Side in Chicago (Onion 2015).

At a given point in time, individuals in a particular demographic group can exhibit striking differences in educational backgrounds, employment, housing, family structures, political orientation, and religious views. Nevertheless, a given generation may have witnessed and have been affected by the same global or domestic events. The Great Recession and the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, for example, represent impactful, shared experiences for most members of the millennial generation.

Today, in 2019, the millennial generation is the largest demographic group in the United States with 73 million members, outnumbering the baby boomers, who number 72 million (Searing 2019). They comprise about 25 percent of the U.S. population, and globally one of every four persons is likewise a millennial. Thirty percent of the U.S. voting age population and 40 percent of the working age population is in this group. The millennial generation represents a demographic bridge to America’s diverse future, according to a recent Brookings Institution report. The white, non-Hispanic population comprised 68.4 percent of the pre-millennials (over age thirty-eight) but a significantly lower 51.5 percent of the post-millennials (individuals younger than age twenty-two). Twenty-five percent of the post-millennials are Hispanic (Metropolitan Policy Program 2018).

Even considering intragenerational differences, a snapshot view of millennials reveals that they are well educated, with 39 percent having a bachelor’s degree or higher, compared to about 25 percent of baby boomers. More millennial women have bachelor’s degrees compared to women of earlier generations and compared to millennial men, and more of them are in the workforce. The millennials have felt the impact of the Great Recession and have fewer financial reserves compared to generations that preceded them. Fewer of them own homes, and they marry and have children at later ages (Pew Research Center 2019b).

One of the defining characteristics of this generation is the fact that they are digital natives, communicating and obtaining information through social media. They have been strongly influenced by the forces of globalization and by technology, and Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter are integral parts of their daily lives; in fact, 41 percent of global millennials have a social media account (Cosseboom 2015).

Millennials are, for the most part, not “joiners,” deriving satisfaction in the digital infrastructure that they have created for themselves. This reality is frustrating and puzzling to many organizations, most notably religious organizations and churches. Approximately one in four millennials are unaffiliated with any specific faith. A 2014 Barna study found that 59 percent of millennials who grew up in the church have dropped out at some point (Barna Group 2014). When asked about their reasons for dropping out, they cited the church’s irrelevance, hypocrisy, and the moral failures of the leaders. Some expressed real “spiritual” needs that weren’t addressed by churches.

There is a commonly shared view that the millennials’ religious disaffiliation represents a true generational change. Macrina Cooper-White states that their habits of not attending religious services, their disapproval of religious organizations, and their statements that religion isn’t important to them represent a cultural phenomenon. She attributes individualism as the driver of these changes, stating that “religious involvement was low when individualism was high” (Cooper-White 2015).

Michael Hout, professor of sociology at New York University and an expert on generational and religious changes in the United States, points out that many millennials have baby boomer parents who have promoted the ideal of thinking for oneself and finding one’s own moral compass. He also feels that the loss of faith in religious organizations is just one manifestation of a generalized loss of faith in all institutions, including the labor market, government, and even marriage. Hout doesn’t see any evidence that the distrust of churches and organized religion among millennials will abate as they age (Pew Research Center 2016).

They are also abandoning religious affiliations, mainly Catholic and Protestant, because many of them feel that churches have mixed religion and politics. Evangelical churches in particular have embraced policies that are judgmental, anti-LGBTQ, and antiscience (especially as related to climate change), and, as a result, millennials are leaving them. Sex abuse scandals in the Catholic Church have also played a role in the exit.

The increase in the numbers of the religiously unaffiliated, the Nones, in recent years is heartening to us as secularists and skeptical inquirers. The 2015 Pew Research Center poll found that approximately 35 percent of millennials are Nones. A new Pew Research survey, released on October 17, 2019, demonstrates that all demographics of the religiously unaffiliated populations are growing rapidly in the United States, with the growth in numbers of disaffiliated young adults having markedly increased since previous surveys. Remarkably, there has been a decrease in the absolute number of Christians from 178 million in 2009 to approximately 167 million today, despite an increase in the U.S. population by 23 million individuals! In addition, “self-described atheists now account for 4% of U.S. adults, up modestly but significantly from 2% in 2009; agnostics make up 5% of U.S. adults, up from 3% a decade ago; and 17% of Americans now describe their religion as ‘nothing in particular,’ up from 12% in 2009” (Pew Research Center 2019c). Nevertheless, one must question whether this increase may be at least partially due to the fact that more individuals feel free to state that they are unaffiliated. Interestingly, most Nones do not label themselves as atheists or agnostics. Is this because our society still frowns upon these descriptions, or does it indicate that these individuals are not actively opposed to religion? Could these same people be attracted to unconventional “religions” or practices?

Michael Shermer cites a 2014 survey of individuals, not all of whom were millennials, conducted by the Austin Institute for the Study of Family and Culture that found that of the 13.2 percent of individuals who classified themselves as atheist or agnostic, 32 percent professed a belief in the afterlife or a sort of conscious existence after death. His incredulity is certainly understandable, but he states that he suspects these “nonbelievers” might be moving away from traditional religion to New Age belief systems, perhaps even holding out hopes that scientific developments such as uploading the mind or cloning might facilitate an afterlife or some semblance of one. Many who are religiously unaffiliated still profess a belief in a “god” and state that they are spiritual. Berkeley sociologist Casey Homan describes two definitions of spirituality, one recognizing the interconnectedness of the world and the other integrating beliefs in the supernatural and paranormal. He believes that millennials often describe themselves as “spiritual but not religious” to avoid being classified as an atheist (immoral) or a Christian (a political conservative) (Stone 2018).

Matthew Hedstrom, associate religious studies professor at the University of Virginia, has studied the millennials’ move away from organized religion in a search for alternate methods to satisfy their spiritual needs. He states that consumer capitalism offers myriad appealing “religious products” that they can select instead of subscribing to the dogma of organized religion (Newman 2015).

The term religious products raises red flags for a skeptical inquirer. Some disturbing trends have developed within this generation in recent years. Incredibly, there are a few millennial flat-earth proponents and conspiracy theory advocates regarding the moon landing. Astrology and its sidekick of “retrogrades” (an apparent change in the movement of a planet through the sky) have gained a following too. A new article in the New Yorker (October 28) describes the soaring popularity of astrology and the fact that it is ubiquitous on the web, social media, mobile apps, and downloadable formats. The author, Christine Smallwood, postulates that its appeal may be related to a search for meaning in a life devoid of the dogma associated with organized religion. Economic uncertainties, dissatisfaction with the current political situation in our country, and a feeling of being powerless in a chaotic world may be additional factors (Smallwood 2019). Stuart Vyse has studied the appeal of astrology to youth, remarkably in those with a liberal orientation, and he has described it as a tool to supply a sense of control over their lives, especially during stressful times (Vyse 2018). Others ascribe the popularity of astrology, tarot card readings, and Skype psychic consultations as methods to address anxiety and uncertainty about the future and maybe even to blame an outside force beyond their control for misfortunes. Many members of the millennial generation have been deeply affected by the Great Recession, and economic woes coupled with student debt may add to their concerns. Interestingly, several young subscribers to the astrology app have indicated that the app offers them comfort even though they don’t necessarily believe the message that it conveys.

Elizabeth King, a self-described millennial evangelical-turned-atheist, states that her church made her feel so guilty and uncomfortable that she has turned to the therapist’s couch for comfort. She told her doctor that “I think therapy is our new church” (King 2016).

Although there is evidence of an inverse relationship between educational level and belief in these pseudoscientific practices, it is ironic that in the Silicon Valley, one of the least religious areas of the country, spirituality-focused products are thriving. Entrepreneur Tara-Nicholle Nelson has created a startup, SoulTour, described as a “hybrid social network app and offline community that provides religion-agnostic uplifting content.” Nelson describes SoulTour as a means to address the spiritual void felt by many young millennial technology workers by offering meditations, self-help mantras, and other products via a monthly mobile phone subscription model (Stone 2018).

Additional entrepreneurial ventures include such products as Headspace, an iPhone app that focuses on meditation and mindfulness techniques. This app, created by Andy Puddicombe, a forty-six-year-old British man who trained and practiced for many years as a Buddhist monk, has been embraced by many millennials—and not just in Silicon Valley, where it has fit neatly into the culture of techno-utopianism. Corporations such as Goldman Sachs and Dana-Farber Cancer Institute have purchased bulk subscriptions to Headspace for their employees. Puddicombe states that he has addressed skeptics by “pulling the science lever” and promoting studies run by neuroscientists that he has recruited to show improvements in such areas as improved sleep habits (Widdicombe 2015). Of course these studies do not meet the gold standard of randomized controlled studies.

Despite the pseudoscientific proclivities mentioned above, it is important to understand that many millennials have a profound interest in science, and many are fascinated by its potential to solve world problems, in particular climate change. In an article in The Atlantic, Alexandra Ossola describes the web publication “I F*cking Love Science,” which has 18 million likes on Facebook, compared to 2 million likes for Scientific American and 2.8 million likes for Popular Science (Ossola 2014). Despite the publication’s issues with accusations of sensationalism and allegations of plagiarism, its wild success is a testament to the appetite for science-related stories in its audience, mostly millennials.

Ossola credits Bill Nye the Science Guy for stimulating millennials’ interest in science in addition to their access to huge amounts of online scientific information. Carl Sagan and Neil deGrasse Tyson have been especially effective science communicators who have stimulated many young people’s interest and enthusiasm about science.

Even though television, social media, podcasts, and mobile phone apps are significant sources of scientific information, it is often a teacher who sparks an interest in science. Fortunately, science teachers have some innovative tools in their armamentarium these days to make an impact on young people. For example, the Teacher Institute for Evolutionary Science (TIES), a program of  the Center for Inquiry (CFI) funded by the Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason & Science, is an example of a successful program of workshops in every state whose goal is to offer middle school science teachers exciting videos, hands-on laboratory experiments, and other instructional tools to teach students evolution. This program addresses evolution, a potentially divisive issue in schools, in a scientifically accurate nonconfrontational manner, using real life examples of the unifying force of evolution in our daily lives.

Scientific issues are extremely politicized in the United States today, but fortunately many millennials are issue-oriented and are willing to work with others across religious, ethnic, partisan, and national boundaries to solve problems. In fact, many have a global perspective and feel that they may have more in common with others in their age group in other countries who share common interests (e.g., in science) but are geographically distant.

Science provides a common universal language, and a “democratization” process occurs as individuals with diverse cultures and levels of scientific expertise share information with each other online. Paradoxically, climate change—an existential threat to the planet—may act as a galvanizing force to unite global millennials. Its urgency requires scientifically valid actions, free of religious partisan delusions. Jesse Zondervan, a millennial PhD geoscience student at the University of Plymouth, states that his generation of scientists, clustered in key global, urban, mega-regions, will be in the forefront of change in the future. He foresees religion possibly being replaced by technology as geographic boundaries such as the nation state fade away, and he feels that “the combination of globalization and cultural change in the world-view gives rise to an interesting and powerful way we interact with the earth around us” (Zondervan 2018).

Climate change has certainly been a galvanizing issue among the youth in the United States. Young Republicans accept the science validating climate change and demonstrate a willingness to unite with others to address it. In fact, 36 percent of millennial Republicans believe in anthropogenic climate change, double the percentage of believers in their parents’ baby boomer generation. This gap is also present regarding energy issues such as fracking. There is hope that the attitudes among the youth may influence older Republicans’ viewpoints on these issues and lead to action on climate-related issues (Paulson 2018).

One of the strongest determinants of how issues involving the intersection of religion and science will be addressed is the profile of the electorate. In the United States in 2020, 37 percent of the electorate will be made up of millennials and post-millennials, and they are more likely to be Democratic, liberal, and environmentally conscious than previous generations. Hopefully they will demand scientifically literate individuals to represent them in government.

Millennials and their younger counterparts, the post-millennials, represent generations that are and will continue to be distinctly different from the generations that preceded them. As skeptical inquirers, we hope that Greta Thunberg’s speech at the United Nations this year was a clarion call—a passionate appeal for rational, scientific approaches to problem solving in a world whose very existence is under threat.