Posted by Jay Livingston
“Kids, I don’t know what’s wrong with these kids today,” sang Paul Lynde in “Bye-Bye Birdie.” That was 54 years ago.
Paul Lynde is gone, but we now have N. Bradley Wilcox (here) fretting about the Millenials. Kids . . .
[their]ties to the core human institutions that have sustained the American experiment — work, marriage, and civil society — are worryingly weak.Not as tuneful, but it’s the thought that counts.
Wilcox is professor of Sociology and the University of Virginia, also, according to the bio on the NRO article, director of the Home Economics Project at the American Enterprise Institute and the Institute for Family Studies, so he ought to know. He looks at data from the Pew Survey and the General Social Survey and concludes that the Millenials unless they change their ways as they grow older, will lead the country to political and economic disaster.*
Philip Cohen, on his Family Inequality blog (here), has already pointed some of the problems with Wilcox’s interpretation of the data on work and trust. Philip also provides a link to his earlier criticisms of Wilcox’s assertions about family.
It’s the “civil society” part that interests me. But how to measure engagement in civil society? Voter turnout among the young? That was slightly higher in 2012 than it was a quarter-century earlier. Wilcox does not use that. Nor does he use rates of volunteering. Instead he uses a measure of how religious a person is. Here is the graph he borrows from the Pew Survey.
Interestingly, the Not Religious are more trusting than are the two middle categories, Moderate and Slight. (The differences, with 900 people in the sample, are not quite statistically significant at the .05 level. The differences between Very Religious and Not Religious do not come close to significance.)
The religious dimension produces its largest difference in rates of marriage.
Work: Wilcox says “full-time work remains the best way to avoid poverty and to chart a path into the middle class.” It also brings “an important sense of dignity and meaning.” But according to GSS data, religiousness is unrelated to full-time work.
Education: Wilcox says almost nothing about education. Most Americans assume that it’s a good thing for both the individual and the society. School is also one of the important institutions of our society, so presumably staying in school indicates a commitment to civil society. But it is the Not Religious who get higher degrees, while the Very Religious are more likely to drop out.
In sum, except for being married, religiousness is either not related to the “core human institutions that have sustained the American experiment,”or the direction of the relation contradicts the way Wilcox would like the variables to align.
My point is not that Wilcox is wrong about a lack of civic engagement among the young. When my questions in class about current front-page political issues or important events in US history meet blank stares, I too have my Paul Lynde moments. I wonder: did students a generation or two ago know more about such things? I don’t trust my memory on that.
But whatever civic engagement is, and whether the Millenials have less of it, I don’t think we find that out by asking people about their religious convictions.
* “a generation of young adults ‘unmoored’ from the institutions of work, family, and civil society, and distrustful of their fellow citizens, can end up succumbing to the siren song of demagogues, especially if the economy dips into a depression.”