When Beliefnet launched in 1999, the nation appeared to be in the middle of a spirituality boom. "Touched by an Angel" was the #4 show, newsmagazines put religion on their covers every chance they got, and the spirituality book market was booming. I often heard this theory to explain the boom: We were in a time of affluence; people were finding their material needs well met only to discover a feeling of emptiness, so they turned to faith.
Two years later, we were in a recession--and yet the spirituality boom continued. Clearly, we were told, the interest in spirituality resulted from Americans feeling economically insecure and needing support. Then came 9/11 and the theory changed to: Clearly, we're feeling vulnerable to attack and therefore turning to faith.
What's really fueling all this activity is a convergence of three forces:
1. The spiritual life cycle
2. The aging of the baby boomers
3. The breakdown of traditional institutional loyalties
Phenomenon #1: The Spiritual Life Cycle
Surveys indicate that spiritual interest and activity tends to follow a predictable arc, increasing as we age. This chart from Gallup tells it all:
A recent Newsweek/Beliefnet poll found a similar correlation between age and an interest in spirituality. While 44% of people ages 18-39 said spirituality was "very important" in their daily lives, 63% of people aged 40-59 said so.
This is not because older folks are more traditional and old-fashioned. It's because as we age, life forces us to confront existential dilemmas.
To offer some gross caricatures....
In our 20s, we feel immortal and focused on exploration and experimentation. In our 30s, we're more likely to be searching for a soul mate and deciding on our purpose or vocation. As we create families and figure out how to raise kids, we revisit our spirituality. As we age more, we start to see more and more loved ones die--at first, our parents' generation, then our peers. We want to make sense of the losses, find strength, and connect with the other world. If we're alone, the loneliness weighs heavier; if we're happy, we discover that our joy is magnified when it is shared. As the burdens of caring for our kids and our parents grow, we need more sources of strength.
If we have no vocation, the emptiness seems vaster at 40 than at 20. What we value begins to shift. We've been burned by some of our life choices and come to treasure other more timeless virtues like honesty or authenticity than we used to. If we've been materially successful, we realize that there's more to life; if we've struggled financially, we tap spiritual wealth for strength and happiness. As we age further, we confront the fragility of life even more directly. It dawns on us that we're going to die, too, and we want to figure out how to make sense of life here and hereafter.
Are younger people spiritual too? Yes, of course. These are broad stereotypes, invariably inaccurate in the particular. But on a broad statistical level it is demonstrably true: The older you get, the more spiritual you become.
In 1970, 47% of the population was 30 or older. Today, 57% of the population is. By 2020, 60.6% will be. Stated another way, a much larger percentage of the population is in the peak "spiritual zone" than it used to be.
In a sense, the spirituality boom is an extension of the fitness boom. The same people who learned how to jog in 1975 are learning how to pray in 2005. They took care of their abs then and must attend to their souls now.
What do we know about boomers? They're used to shopping from among many choices. They're into self-help. They're both self-indulgent and tolerant. Remember these basic boomer characteristics and its easier to understand their spirituality
Phenomenon #3: The Decline of Traditional Institutions