John Allen made some remarks about a report from the UN Population Division which indicates a growth in the ratio of elderly to young in the future.
In addition to the stress on healthcare and pensions that we might expect, this trend has very dire consequences with regard to the entire world economy. Demographic winter is the name given to the situation in which those involved in producing goods in an economy decrease compared to the overall population. The decline in birth rates in developed nations - comprising 80% of the world's economy may result in a plummeting of the numbers of workers, consumers and innovators - leading to falling consumer spending, and too few workers to support the elderly.
Rapid aging of the human population, the report asserts, is a demographic trend of mammoth consequence, and one “without parallel in the history of humanity.”
That’s a bold claim, especially since the modern science of demography really didn’t take shape until the 18th century. But without doubt, today’s demographic landscape – dominated by declining birth rates and rapid aging across the planet – represents a startling inversion of the assumptions that have long dominated the field, the sound-bite version of which was the “population bomb.”
If the old demographic worry was relentless population increase, today’s anxieties cut in exactly the opposite direction.
According to the “World Population Ageing 2009”
report from the United Nations Population Division, by 2045 the number of older persons in the world (defined as those 60 and above) will exceed the number of children (15 and under) for the first time. Both in the United States and around the world, the elderly are by far the fastest-growing segment of the population, a result of both declining fertility and increased life spans.
But with regard to the Church, Allen sees a possibly rosy picture.
Given that elderly people are, statistically speaking, far more likely to invest time and treasure in their faith than any other demographic cohort, today’s rapid increase in people 65+ represents a potential “boom market” for religion.
It certainly has been true that the elderly are more involved in Church than the young. The Pew Foundation study on Religion in America found that, at least as of last year, only 30% of those who had been raised Catholic in the U.S. were "practicing" (defined as showing up at least once a month for Mass).
Whether the Catholic church benefits from this boom will depend, to a great extent, on how imaginative the church becomes in making these swelling numbers of older folks feel welcome and appreciated.
38% seldom or never attended Mass
15% were Protestant
14% were not affiliated with any religion
3% were practicing a non-Christian faith.
Furthermore, the Pew study indicated that those who left the Church and became unaffiliated did so in their youth: 79% by age 23 and 97% by age 35. Of those who became Protestant, 66% left by age 23, and 91% by age 35 - although in general there was a gap between leaving the Catholic faith and embracing Protestantism.
Even those who still hold on to the label "Catholic" are not necessarily being married in the Church or baptizing their children. According to a 2007 CARA study, 40% of Gen X/Millennial Catholics were not married in the Church.
Mr. Allen is presuming that the ranks of those sitting in pews will increase as the population ages. I don't necessarily see it. Our society is becoming less religious, and while some folks will come back to the Church as they age - perhaps seeking "fire insurance," many won't. This is especially true if the postmodernism continues to influence our secular culture. Postmoderns don't believe in absolute truth so claiming certain behaviors are sinful, and that other behaviors are not just desirable but necessary for a Christian - doesn't make sense, and may even lead to an angry rejection of religious statements because the make judgments about behavior. Distrust of institutions is a major characteristic of postmodern society, so that's a second strike against the Church. If all we can do is make the elderly feel welcomed and appreciated (which I'm all for, mind you), but leave it at that, we'll lose many who find all the welcome and appreciation they seek their neighborhood recreation association, bridge group, or gardening club.
If we don't know how to call people to discipleship, or believe that "giving one's life to Jesus and trusting in what He has revealed" is setting the bar too high, then we've basically said that God isn't our greatest good, the one and only satisfaction of our heart's desire. If that's the case, then we have, indeed, fallen prey to the consumerist myth that promises satisfaction in material things.
If the "Grayby Boom" brings about an economic bust, on the other hand, then maybe there's hope that our churches will be full. But in that scenario, I am sure they won't be looking for just a friendly community. The elderly will be seeking after real meaning and purpose. They'll be seeking after Jesus. Will we be preaching Him?