Number Our Days: Social and Cultural Context.
Our elders are growing in numbers. In the United States and other developed countries, the population is aging. In the 2010 U.S. Census, the number of people age 65 and over was 40.3 million persons (13.0 % of the whole) and grew at a faster rate (15.1 % in the past decade) than the population under age 45. In 2010, the median age increased to a new high of 37.2 years, from 35.3 years in 2000, with the proportion of the population at the older ages increasing similarly. The population is growing at a faster rate in the older age ranges than in the younger. (Howden)
When compared with the 2000 Census, the 2010 Census shows all regions grew in both the 65 and older and 85 and older populations. The region with the fastest growth in the population 65 and older was the West (23.5 percent), increasing from 6.9 million in 2000 to 8.5 million in 2010. The region with the fastest growth in the population 85 and older was also the West (42.8 percent), increasing from 806,000 in 2000 to 1.2 million in 2010. (United States Census Bureau)
By 2030, there will be about 72.1 million older persons, more than twice their number in 2000. People 65+ represented 12.4% of the population in the year 2000 but are expected to grow to be 19% of the population by 2030. (Administration on Aging, 2013)
This ‘longevity revolution’ represents an unprecedented change in the age structure of human societies and has significant implications for the practice and the study of religion and of psychology. (McFadden: 162)
The Global Picture
The rapid ageing of the world population is one of the major global demographic trends, driven by the reduction of fertility and mortality….
In most regions and countries of the world the population aged 60 or more is growing faster than younger adults and children, and this has important consequences for the family, the labor market, and public programs directed to different generational groups. (United Nations, 2013)
Since 1950, the proportion of older persons has been rising steadily, passing from 8 per cent in 1950 to 11 per cent in 2009, and is expected to reach 22 per cent in 2050. As long as old-age mortality continues to decline and fertility remains low, the proportion of older persons will continue to increase. (United Nations, 2010: xxv)
The potential support ratio (PSR), that is, the number of persons aged 15 to 64 for each older person aged 65 years or over, indicates how many potential workers there are per older person. As a population ages, the potential support ratio tends to fall. Between 1950 and 2009, the potential support ratio declined from 12 to 9 potential workers per person aged 65 or over. By 2050, the potential support ratio is projected to drop further to reach 4 potential workers per older person. (United Nations, 2010: xxvii)
In most of Europe and also in the U.S., social–welfare systems were put in place at a time of rapid … population growth. The programs were structured around the assumption that there would always be more young people paying for benefits than there would be old people receiving them. (Kolbert)
In a recent lecture at a conference on aging, Maxine Hancock cheerfully identified herself as part of the “grey tsunami.” (Hancock)
Retirement is a major event in later life. And the demographics insist upon attention to this transition in the general population, in church members, and in clergy. The “grey tsunami” involves clergy as well as laity. In fact, Carol Howard Merritt observes, “In the next ten years, about 70% of our pastors will be at retirement age.” (Merritt)
What affects seniors affects the generations of the future as well. The children of today face several challenges that will affect seniors.
Financial advisors, and fund-raising executives throughout the nonprofit sector, have long been warned of the turnover of wealth and the transition in stewardship, from one generation to the next anticipated in the next decades. Through “wealth transfer,” much of the wealth of older generations, where there is any, is expected to transfer to younger generations within the near future. A recent study cites estimates that as much as $27 trillion of family wealth could be transferred between now and 2050. Among these families, “issues of control and empowerment are causing some tension when it comes to wealth transfer.” (Campden) Rather than go into legacies and inheritances, however, the savings of many ordinary seniors may instead go to pay for the expenses of their own late–life care. (Magnus: 305)
As anticipated by Peter Laslett (1991), the leaders of tomorrow – the children of today – will face issues relating to the different interests of different generations. Financing of age–related spending for senior family members; cutbacks in retirement benefit funding and increases in taxes; and short and long–term economic trends, including inflation, will all have different implications for different age groups. Children of the Boomers will in their turn become the parent generation for people experiencing very different family structures and support networks than they experienced themselves.
Today’s seniors, as members of the grandparents and great-grandparents generations to those children of tomorrow, may play a larger role in their lives. But it is the care of all of the upcoming generations – not just one's own descendants – that becomes the role of the “trustees of the future,” the seniors (Laslett). And yet many seniors will live alone. Will congregations or other religious organizations provide meaningful community for these people, or will they turn elsewhere for support?
In addition, global trends – of immigration, economics, and a shift to the East as cultural center and global marketplace – will mean the children of today’s children will grow up in a very different world from the older generations who will be, in many cases, still alongside them during these sea changes in society. (Magnus: 305–307)
We live our lives in the context of the lives of others. Our own experience is mediated through self–perception, reflected in the lives and character of the people around us. Much of what we experience as self–esteem is built upon our understanding of our worth in the eyes of others. This makes for a problem in the older years: many older people experience a discounting of their experience and wisdom, their expertise and capabilities, as they perceive themselves as "old" in the eyes of others. This self–diminishment is reinforced by negative stereotypes in the culture: the list is long. What these stereotypes can do is to disempower the old and lead younger people with perfectly capable lives to discount the experience that they could be gaining and celebrating with their elders. We all miss out in a world like that.
“We need more young families!” is a familiar cry in aging congregations. “Where are the young people?” older members ask. And young people miss the opportunity to interact with multiple generations. Longevity and mobility have pulled families apart.
The congregation, if its membership is proscribed by geography and tradition rather than by age and affinity, is one place where generations may converge and interact. What prevents them?
In part it is because of this very seeking for an idealized solution, the idea that young people (considered en masse) will bring new energy to do the work and provide the monetary resources to sustain the programs that their elders have set before them. They will come to church intact, it is felt; already fulfilled in their relationships and with time to spare and readiness to serve.
But the reality is that people are broken, unfinished, and needy – including young people. They have day care to run to, jobs to do, rent to pay. And, yes, they want community.
So in addition to the ageism experienced by the elderly, there is the ageism experienced by the young, the prejudice that they will provide for the fulfillment of expectations of another generation. They may not even know that they have been signed up for this duty!
In a recent interview, Pope Francis said, “The most serious of the evils that afflict the world these days are youth unemployment and the loneliness of the old.” (Goodstein).
What these different generations could offer each other, in multi–generational contexts like the local congregation, could strengthen them both. Elders have seen change – in some ways greater than any since – and adapted. Their perspective, if offered as wisdom rather than nostalgia, can help younger people face the changes of their own experience.
Elders in American Society
“Longevity and mobility are increasing factors in the situation of older members of American society. In the United States, the proportion of people over 65 years of age is projected to grow to 21% of the population by the year 2040.” (Administration on Aging, 2012: 3)
Due to the prevalent and increasing mobility of the population, fewer seniors find themselves living in the same town as their own children or grandchildren. Seeing them is a special occasion, worthy of effort to arrange, and often worthy of sacrifice of other affiliations or commitments, including attendance at their own local church.
Conversely, the grandchildren may be brought to them and then they will have the satisfaction of bringing their grandchildren to the church of their peers. However, this is far less frequent than the daily or weekly regular engagement with people of another generation that multiple generations of an extended family living in the same place would produce.
However, while their own grandchildren may not always be available, the children of other grandparents likely do live somewhere nearby. They may live in the same neighborhood – or the same catchment area for membership – as their local congregation. But do they attend that church? Where do they find their community: of support, of challenge, of vocational expression?
A number of factors come into play and a number of questions arise: Why go to church? Why would grandchildren want to go to a church full of strangers? How do the members of the congregation make newcomers welcome? What does it take to become a member, not in name only but in social practice?
The question that mirrors the ones we might expect to focus on in the study of elderhood is this: How do the senior members of the church greet new faces? Are young people greeted, welcomed, and integrated into the life of the parish? Newer residents of the town may include families who are themselves separated from distant elders.
Is there initial warmth followed by reluctance toward further familiarity? In the region of the study congregation, newcomers call this pattern of an initial welcome followed by disengagement, the “Seattle Freeze.” In other regions it goes by other names. Under any name the experience of superficial welcome followed by unstated barriers to closer association coupled with the church’s eternal reputation for hypocrisy may be enough cause for young people to turn away from the churches of older generations. They find somewhere – or nowhere – else to go. And all will thereby lose out on the richness of experience that membership in a multigenerational congregation can afford. (And this is a rare opportunity in a society stratified by age, where so often generations do not otherwise mix.)
Opportunities for multigenerational interactions, I have found in practice, have already arisen by the time people arrive at the church door. How members make themselves known in the community may determine the initial impression a first-time worshipper has of the congregation. Greeting, attendance, participation, and active incorporation into the celebrations – on regular Sundays as well as special holidays – all begin to give the picture of a church that welcomes people of all ages to be in fellowship together. The overt message of inclusion must be matched by behavior of individual worshippers. If the pastor (or a designated greeter) welcomes families with children into the sanctuary, but then people in the pews encourage the parents to remove their children to another room, the family may get a mixed message about the sincerity of the welcome, however strenuously it is asserted at board or committee meetings or in literature or website.
So, oddly enough, it is part of embracing elderhood in a multigenerational congregation to encourage the presence of children, among other generations. Accommodation within reason for physical disabilities is also a measure that congregational leaders should willingly accept as part of their responsibility. The pleasure all members take in the presence of charming children may be matched by a conscious and embodied message of welcome to all generations. Congregations without many senior members may feel the lack of diversity much as churches that seem to be comprised of only the elderly do. One small child visiting the study congregation asked, according to her grandmother, “Is this church only for old people?”
The dramatic increase in the proportion of Americans who are reaching or have reached the traditional age of retirement will change us, as a society, as a culture, as a church, as congregations, and as individuals. Congregations in traditional mainstream denominations will likely be at the forefront of change. The question is: what will that change be?
Among voluntary associations, religious institutions can function like mutual benefit organizations, to use the typology of nonprofit organizations of Michael O’Neill:
Besides philanthropic nonprofits, there are thousands of tax–exempt organizations that exist primarily to serve their own members. In many states, these are legally classified as ‘mutual benefit’ as distinguished from ‘public benefit’ organizations. Mutual benefit organizations include golf and tennis clubs, service organizations… (O’Neill: 156)
Writing in 1960, Arnold B. Come observed: “Suddenly, within the last decade, people have flooded into the church, without plan or promotion.” (Come: 11) The church of the 1950s with its automatic accrual of attendees often modeled a church as a social institution, a mutual benefit organization, which one attended and received services from. For many, that was the automatic entitlement of membership.
This encumbering legacy of the post–war era is still active in many minds, and in competition with another model, that we, the people of God, are the church.
In addition, churches face the competition of a culture of consumerism.
Our consumerist culture has co-opted many churches.... When the church becomes essentially a purveyor of religious goods and services, it reinforces the believer's own consumerist habits, allowing him [or her] to pick and choose according to taste and functionality. Inhaling from the cultural atmosphere a mania for unlimited choice, churches breathe out as many different programs as possible. Perhaps unintentionally, this approach treats personal liberty and the inalienable “right” to choose as the highest goods in life. (Williams)
Phyllis Tickle, noted author and commentator on religious trends, commented recently on another pertinent trend.
“The old saw is that after they married and had children, people would come back to organized faith. It is not true now. People under 40 are not returning to their inherited church,” she said. In her studies on contemporary Christianity, she sees it morphing from ‘inherited, hierarchical, location–based (churched) faith’ toward forms that discard those strictures. Believers today are still interested in a communal expression of faith. They just want a more ‘nimble” religion.’” (Grossman: 12)
The collision of expectations is a factor in governance and congregational life. The expectations raised and cultivated over the past half–century and more match the social contract of the American Dream. Indeed for many people what church can do for them is part of the same deal as what their country can do for them. Members of the Silent Generation (Traditionalists) and of the older half of the Baby Boom Generation, for example, interviewees from the study congregation, are probably the last that expect this implicit contract to be fulfilled.
This contract is breaking down. There are not enough young people to carry the load of these expectations and there are not enough resources for entitlement funding to cover the obligations already incurred.
This is the case in the macrocosm of society and the microcosm of the congregation. Politics are not to blame. Demographics and economics point to the large–scale changes long in motion. These include the “grey tsunami” and the “longevity revolution” – and their consequences. For example, United Nations statistical projections of the “potential support ratio” indicate that by the year 2050 there will be four potential workers to provide the retirement resources that once were the burden shared by a dozen workers. (United Nations, 2010: xxvii)
In the churches, too, the “potential support ratio” is declining. It takes, churches are told, several young people to make up in monetary contributions what one senior gives. Partly this is due to habit, or the (lack of) cultivation thereof. Partly it is custom. Partly it is because churches collect donations in old–fashioned ways foreign to younger people. (One man in his thirties said to me, “I don’t even have a checkbook.”) But it is also true that young people, who are finding their way in a troubled job market, simply do not have the time or money to give that their elders gave – or expect them to give. Uncertain employment, longer hours at work, demands of home and family – and care of the elderly – all draw down the available energy and resources of the emerging generations.
Nevertheless the younger generations have energy and passion to participate in and contribute to (and take the lead in) the causes and organizations that they see as worthwhile. A strong trend among the young is to support organizations and causes where they feel a personal connection or a sense of ownership and results. “You see where your money – and time – is going, and you see the results.” There is a return on investment: there is a traceable effect. This is far different from the attitudes of institutional loyalty and filial obligation projected their way by some seniors.
The inescapable factor of time in the study of aging and older persons raises two additional issues: cohort effects and period effects produced by the sociohistorical circumstances that can affect researchers’ questions and their data. In regard to cohort effects, it is important to recognize that persons now in their mid–70s entered adulthood when World War II ended.... In the mid–20th century, U.S. mainline Protestantism rapidly expanded and embraced the values of science and modernism; elders socialized into adult religious life at that time rarely explored the mysteries of transcendence, so now, in old age, they may find themselves bereft of spiritual resources and religious beliefs that can provide a sense of meaning.... Finally, after affecting numerous U.S. institutions due to its size, the baby–boom cohort entered adulthood challenging religious and political authority and producing a widespread debate about the relation between religion and spirituality. (McFadden: 163)
Suspicion of institutions is part of the shift in attitudes between generations. To illustrate, this year marks the fiftieth anniversary of a watershed event in American popular consciousness. In a recent article, “The Turning Point,” news journalist Bob Schieffer recalls that day and reflects on its ramifications.
The Kennedy assassination was the beginning of a series of very difficult events. We went through the protests on Vietnam. People felt the government hadn't been straight with them. What we call the "credibility gap" developed. In 1968 we had the horrible deaths of Martin Luther King Jr. and Bobby Kennedy. Then came Watergate. Americans grew more skeptical, and more cynical. Our confidence in institutions was shaken — all institutions, from government to universities and even churches. And we never quite got it back. We would never feel the same about any of those things as we did before John Kennedy's death. (Schieffer)
In the life of congregations, such succession issues as passing leadership initiative and authority from generation to generation come into play along with different ideas and attitudes toward financial stewardship, active participation, and voluntary contributions of time and money.
Traditionalists maintained and supported the institutions and procedures that helped them attain their generational goals and aspirations. In the process they experienced a bulge in institutional growth. Schools were built to accommodate their children; schools that since closed. Church buildings were built for them to attend with their children; those churches, for the most part, have remained. They have remained, but they are dwindling. The model of church of the Traditionalist generation is passing away. What, then, will they pass on? What do they want their legacy to be?
The challenge is real: there are fewer young people to carry on the work, with fewer hours and less financial security. On top of this the succession from one generation to another is not always clearly accomplished.
David Eller of World Concern has observed that people who see no future tend to cling to, or revert to, the habits of the past. This means a reluctance to accept change, much less to initiate it. The more threatened a group of people may be, the less likely they are to accept change. “They don’t necessarily see that there is a better future at hand…. It can be very, very difficult to bring about change.” (Eller) For a group as for an individual, extremely stressful situations may cause a reversion to earlier patterns of relation.
So too a congregation may attempt to resolve today’s dilemmas with yesterday’s behaviors. The fund-raising practices of four decades ago may not produce adequate results to confront the budget crisis of the current fiscal year. The techniques used to found churches sixty years ago might not be what are needed to rebuild God’s church today. What worked then may not work now.
And yet the presence of elders in a congregation is largely positive in its effects. Older adults offer to their society and their church many gifts – including those of hope, hope for a future they will not see themselves but can envision, and gifts of perspective, taking a longer view, with the widened time horizon that comes with many years of honestly evaluated experience. It is these gifts, of hope and vision, which enable some elders to be “trustees of the future.” (Laslett: 7)
Imagine, then, a mountain slowly coming into view as you approach it across the plains. First only a narrow slice comes into view – the top, the present – that is childhood. The middle view is wider (but for our purposes more future than past), and finally, in old age, the whole mountain is becoming visible, emerging out of the clouds or ascending above the surrounding plains. In the later years, our vision reveals more of the past and of the future, though less personal future, more connection to people, and to a universal or common future.
Growing older does not absolve a person from responsibility, certainly not responsibility for the social future. It could be claimed, in fact, that many more duties of older people go forward in time than is the case of those who are younger. This follows from the fact that they owe less to their own individual futures – now comparatively short – and more to the future of others – all others. It is those who have lived longest who have done the most to bring about the situation which is experienced at any one time. In shouldering their responsibilities for that current situation, older people will do all they can to ensure the future is as good as it can be. In this the elderly of any society can be said to be trustees for the future. (Laslett: 196)
The challenge of society is to find how to accommodate not only the needs of elders but also their gifts.
The challenge for congregations includes how to enable aging members to understand their situation in the span of life, to engage with the other members of the congregation, and ultimately to accept and celebrate with them the gifts that come with aging. Congregations are challenged to meet the need, desires, and demands of an increasing aging population with a limited (and dwindling) set of resources.
Part of the societal task is anticipated by the increasing efforts to make services available to seniors and to incorporate them more fully in the ongoing business of society. This must be tempered by a realistic sense of capability and interest.