By Kent E. Fillinger
This Christmas, you might be looking forward to your adult children returning home. Or maybe they’re home already.
A Pew Research Center report found that 15 percent of millennials (ages 25 to 37) were living at home in 2018, nearly double the rate of older baby boomers when they were in that age range.
In fact, a smaller percentage of people in the rising generations are checking off the four major life events that historically have signified “adulthood”: leaving home, getting married, becoming a parent, and getting a job. And the percentage of adults in the 25 to 34 age range who had accomplished all four major life events fell from 45 percent in 1975 to 24 percent in 2016, according to Kassira Absar in “Delayed Adulthood: The Millennial Falsehood,” at www.apmresearchlab.org.
The Census Bureau dubbed this new stage between childhood and adulthood as “emerging adulthood.” Other researchers have called it “prolonged adolescence.”
It’s not my intent to bash or belittle young adults (millennials), but rather to share the research data to identify relevant trends impacting culture and the church. Let’s examine each of the four traditional markers for adulthood to check their status today.
“The rise in young adults living at home is especially prominent among those with lower education,” according to Pew researchers Kristen Bialik and Richard Fry. “Millennials who never attended college were twice as likely as those with a bachelor’s degree or more to live with their parents (20% vs. 10%)” (from the article, “Millennial Life: How Young Adulthood Today Compares with Prior Generations,” February 14, 2019, www.pewsocialtrends.org).
And 25 percent of young people aged 25 to 34 living in their parents’ home—or about 2.2 million—neither go to school nor work.
More and more parents are providing homes for their aging children to live in, but fewer parents are positively influencing those children to attend church. From 2000 to 2018, the share of those aged 18 to 34 who never attend religious services has more than doubled to 36 percent (see “Cradles, Pews and Shifting Politics,” by Gerald F. Seib, Wall Street Journal, June 25, 2019). Only 27 percent of adults under age 30 attend a worship service weekly (see “Less God, Less Giving?” Karl Zinsmeister, Philanthropy, Winter 2019).
Church leaders like the ones who read this magazine obviously will see a problem in this, but society at large should be worried, as well.
Americans who attend worship services weekly and pray daily are more likely to volunteer in their community, be involved in community groups, have stronger links with their neighbors, and be more engaged with their own families. They also make more charitable contributions—even to secular causes—than the nonreligious.
The trend toward decline in church attendance and participation over the last two decades should heighten concerns for churches. That said, parents with adult children still living with them should take advantage of their proximity and work to revive their children’s faith. It’s never too late to renew the biblical model of parents training their children to follow God. Besides, when they’re living with you, you have a captive audience.
Marriage and Parenthood?
More than half of Americans today do not consider marriage and parenthood as determinants of adulthood—this is a shift from the historical norm. Instead, they place a greater emphasis on education and employment.
Young people today are delaying marriage compared with prior generations. In the 1970s, 8 in 10 people married by the time they turned 30. Today, it’s not until age 45 that 8 in 10 people have married. In 1968, the typical American woman first married at age 21; for men it was 23. Today, the average ages are 28 for women and 30 for men.
The percentage of adults who never marry is increasing with each successive generation. If current patterns continue, an estimated one-in-four of today’s young adults will have never married by the time they reach their mid-40s to early 50s (from “Millennial Life,” Bialik and Fry).
Delayed marriages and no marriages for young adults will naturally result in fewer babies being born. Last year, births were at a 32-year low in the U.S. Interestingly, the birthrate among older women, aged 35 to 44, increased last year (from “Cradles, Pews and Shifting Politics”).
These trends obviously will have major implications for our nation, but from a spiritual perspective, staying single negatively impacts church attendance, participation, and religious affiliation. According to Pew Research, 43 percent of married couples attend a religious service at least once a week compared with only 27 percent of those “never married.” Twenty-eight percent of married couples attend some type of religious education at least once a week compared with 18 percent of those never married. And 55 percent of married couples identified themselves as “Evangelical Protestants” compared with only 18 percent of those never married.
The landscape of “lost people” will continue to look much different moving forward. This should cause churches to expand their focus and change their strategies to reach the growing segments of people outside the church who are single or married and have no children.
Education and Employment?
Young adults today are better educated than prior generations. More women than men complete at least a bachelor’s degree.
“Over 60 percent of college-age people get some type of financial help from their parents. It’s no wonder when you consider the average cost of a 4-year degree is over $40,000,” according to Nate Calvert (“4 Reasons Delayed Adulthood Is an Increasing Trend,” natecalvert.com). “We’re seeing a larger and larger percentage of college-age adults getting financial assistance from home.”
Students who borrow money today leave college with an average debt of more than $30,000. This debt will impact their ability to live on their own, get married and have children, and give to the church and other related ministries and causes.
More young men are falling to the bottom of the income ladder. In 1975, only 25 percent of young men had incomes below $30,000 a year (in 2015 dollars). By 2016, that share rose to 41 percent. Between 1975 and 2016, the share of young women who were homemakers fell from 43 percent to 14 percent.
Responding to the New Face of Adulthood
New realities require new strategies. Reaching this generation of young adults requires a different approach from prior generations. The churches that target one demographic—nuclear families with two parents and children—will be relevant only to a small subset of society. It will limit a church’s evangelistic opportunities and effectiveness.
Here are four action steps your church can take today:
- Invest in a demographic study to identify who lives in your surrounding communities.
- Evaluate your church’s ministries and primary messages to see if they’re designed for the majority people groups living in your ministry region.
- Decide on ministry changes or additions that are necessary to better reach those people groups living in your community.
- Start making those strategic changes one at a time while explaining the “why” behind the changes before, during, and after to your congregation.
Kent E. Fillinger serves as president of 3:STRANDS Consulting, Indianapolis, Indiana, and regional vice president (Ohio, Pennsylvania, Michigan) with Christian Financial Resources.