MOST readers of the Church Times have never met Generation Z folk in church. This is the most recent generation to follow the trend of the past few decades towards decreasing church attendance and increasing affiliation as people with “no religion”. From the — I would suggest — last active Anglican generation, born in the 1920s and ’30s, through their less religious baby-boomer children, born roughly from 1945 to 1960, to the boomers’ largely non-religious millennial children, we have the “digital natives” of Generation Z.
Digital, as indicated by this book’s title, is the key to unlocking what to many is the mystery of this generation, who, born from roughly the mid-1990s, seem wholly unchurched and yet often spiritual and, occasionally, vocally moralistic. The twenty-somethings who occupy this generational space are the grandchildren of boomers. They are sometimes described as digital natives, post-millennials, or zoomers. An acceptance, even an embrace, of inter-connectivity and the benefits of pluralism seems to inflect the current young adults known as Generation Z.
Less kindly, they are also awarded the snide epithets of “snowflake” or “woke”, apparently because they tend to express compassion for others, show emotion, and rile against inequalities and discrimination. And that is just in everyday conversation: the academic literature stemming from theologians or theologically inclined sociologists is equally damning, albeit with more syllables.
Perhaps this condemnation and dismissal of Generation Z’s beliefs and practices, Katz et al. suggest, reflects insecurities and “moral panics” linked to rapid technological innovation. It has happened before: motor cars, films, and the telephone provoked similar outrage and predictions of moral collapse. Indeed, the railing against young people sitting on trains “always on their phones” does often come from those who see nothing wrong hiding behind their morning Telegraph on the train. The difference, as the authors describe in detail throughout their book, is that Generation Z’s experiences on their phones are connected and collaborative. The newspaper is static, individualistic, and instantly demoted to fish-and-chips wrap (before the health-and-safety nanny state went mad about the ink).
This book tells a different story, told from the viewpoint of interdisciplinary international scholars — Roberta R. Katz, Sarah Ogilvie, Jane Shaw, and Linda Woodhead — whose disciplines of anthropology, linguistics, and sociology combine to provide a textured and rich account of the young people whom they interviewed and observed first-hand between 2016 and 2020. Church Times readers are likely to be familiar mostly with Woodhead, who directed the UK’s largest research programme in religion and society and writes widely about Christianity.
Drawing on the notion that “generation” reflects a shared experience and attitude, not simply shared birth dates, the authors argue that Generation Z is unique and significant, as it is the first generation to have always known the internet: “only knowing the world with the possibility of endless information and infinite connectivity of the digital age”. This has greatly affected how Generation Z see their lives and values, bound together by a strong sense of connections and collaboration, and can be, the authors suggest, an example to older generations of how to live.
That sunny, moral outlook is, however, often shadowed by the biggest fear that the authors uncovered: a negative, stagnating, intergenerational “disconnect” that limits understanding and can stall progress. One example, increasingly discussed today, is the conflict over “free speech” and what is sometimes claimed as “cancel culture”. While Generation Z values autonomy, democracy, diversity, and freedom, it is almost equally, or sometimes more so, averse to hate speech and misinformation.
Of the book’s many interesting, original and arresting findings, one should be of particular concern for religious professionals and engaged lay people. Generation Z is not so much opposed to, or vociferous about, religion: religion just doesn’t matter to it. In the authors’ fascinating analysis of what words and phrases most often appeared in their interviews and related material, one conclusion was clear: “terms relating to religion and spirituality appeared relatively infrequently.” This confirms, I suggest, the consequence of the trend that I have observed over the past decades. As religion becomes distant and diffused within families, its transmission weakens.
On the upside, while Generation Z emphasises the importance of being “real” and responsible for one’s own well-being, they also emphasise the need to “support your friends, open up institutions to the talents of the many not the few, embrace diversity, make the world kinder, live by your values”. Sounds familiar?
Dr Abby Day is Professor of Race, Faith and Culture in the Department of Sociology at Goldsmiths, University of London. Her forthcoming book, due to be published by OUP, is Why Baby Boomers Turned from Religion: Shaping belief and belonging, 1945-2021.
Gen Z, Explained: The art of living in a digital age
Roberta Katz, Sarah Ogilvie, Jane Shaw and Linda Woodhead
The University of Chicago Press £18
Church Times Bookshop £16.20