Editor’s note: The following commentary was reprinted with permission from MinistryWatch.com (Warren Smith’s Editor’s Notebook).
By Warren Cole Smith
OPINION–A new study released by Barna Research unveils some interesting trends about Gen X, Gen Z, Millennials, and their generosity. The study as a whole analyzes giving trends—including both charitable donations and volunteerism—broken down by various generations.
What are the key findings? The headline is that younger generations are less generous than older generations. About 51 percent of Gen Z gave to a charity, including church, in 2021, the year studied. About 64 percent of Boomers and 72 percent of so-called Elders gave to charity that year.
That’s a big difference. But there’s more to the story.
Younger folks, Gen Z, Gen X, and Millennials are more than twice as likely to volunteer for a non-profit than Boomers.
And therein lies a lesson.
It’s important to note that young adults have come of age in an economic environment older Americans never saw. Millions of Boomers went to college on the GI Loan. Now, don’t get me wrong: The GI Bill was a good thing. But it had the unintended consequence of providing “free money” to colleges and universities, driving up the cost of higher education at rates far greater than inflation.
Those additional costs were not paid by the taxpayers of the Boomer generation. Rather, it is now being paid by the millions of Millennials, Gen Xers, and Gen Zers who are paying on student loans well into middle age.
The same dynamics have hit the housing market. The median home price in America is about $415,000. Starter homes can be found for less, of course, but if you subscribe to the old rules of thumb that you should pay no more than three times your annual income for a home, or devote no more than 25 percent of your monthly income to housing costs, it’s very difficult for a young family making the median U.S. income (about $70,000) to buy a home these days.
And, of course, there are all the problems that come with a half-century of deficit spending, and the supercharged deficits generated by Quantitative Easing and COVID relief. The government’s money-printing binge of the 2010s mostly benefited older Americans who saw their stock portfolios and homes explode in value. But younger Americans, who had not had the opportunity to accumulate those assets, were left behind.
In other words, it’s important to note that the problems younger generations are facing are largely the result of the bad habits of the older generations who, rather than repent and take some responsibility for the current situation, choose instead to berate the younger generation from the comforts of a (mostly) government-funded retirement.
Indeed, the Millennial generation in particular has become a “whipping boy” for all manner of social, cultural, and demographic ills—from falling birthrates to video game and pornography viewing to the slow growth of the economy. Millennials have been dubbed the “Peter Pan Generation” for its allergy to “adulting.” They have been called the generation that experienced “failure to launch.”
Millennials (defined as those born from about 1982 to about 1998, depending on who’s doing the defining) have been maligned so much that Jonathan Haidt and Greg Lukianoff offered a defense of them in their best-selling book The Coddling of the American Mind. The authors make plain that “millennials are getting a bad rap these days.” They say millennials behave the way they do because of well-intentioned but badly mistaken parents and teachers, who—armed with the affluence of the late 20th century—no longer had to devote the kind of energy generations past had to devote to providing the basics of life: food, water, clothing, shelter.
Those coming of age in the 21st century no longer enjoy those luxuries. That’s why I look at such data as those produced by Barna with a bit of a squint.
In fact, I’ve been looking at data like these for a long time, and I’ve come to two conclusions.
First, we should all be more generous. Very few of us are giving at anywhere near the biblical tithe, even Christians. Older generations should not be self-righteous about their level of generosity.
Secondly, we should lighten up on young people. They have, and should have, different priorities than older folk like me. Often, surveys such as this one don’t take the differences in responsibilities and priorities into account. Nor do they take into account that giving priorities, capacity, and behavior change over time.
If you are a church or ministry leader, there is one aspect of the Barna data you should take seriously, and that is the capacity for volunteerism among younger generations. Ministry leaders should not be targeting young adults for money, but for involvement. Give them opportunities to serve. Capture their hearts with the mission of your organization.
If we do that, though it might take a decade or two, their wallets will follow. Not that getting their wallets should be our goal. We should reach out to younger Christians because it’s the right thing to do. Because it’s good for us and for them. Because Jesus served and we should too (Matt. 10:45).
And because if we don’t do that, we’ll get more of the same. More division, more tribalism, more resentment between the generations. And it will be exactly what we deserve.