'Grayby Boom' a potential windfall for the Church

Ecclesiastes may want us to believe there’s nothing new under the sun, but according to a UN report issued this week, not so. 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. (The report can be found at http://www.un.org/esa/population/publications/WPA2009/WPA2009_WorkingPaper.pdf.

Demographers aren’t often known for their sense of humor, but they’ve coined a tongue-in-cheek phrase for all this: the “Grayby Boom” … as opposed, obviously, to the “Baby Boom” of yesteryear.

Here’s the American dimension of the trend, based on the most recent data from the Census Bureau. As of 2005, there were 60.5 million Americans under the age of 14, and 34.7 million over 65 – in other words, almost twice as many children as elderly. By 2050, the number of Americans under 14 will more or less hold steady at 59.7 million, but the number over 65 will explode to 75.9 million. That’s more than 100 percent growth in less than a half-century.

As a result the 65+ population is easily the most rapidly swelling demographic subgroup in the United States, outpacing Hispanic immigrants and any other category.

I deal with the implications of what experts call “the new demography,” meaning population decline and rapid aging, in the fourth chapter of The Future Church. The “Grayby Boom” will obviously present steep challenges to the church as it does to the broader society, in terms of how to cope with pensions and health care and so on, but it will also create new opportunities. 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.

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.

Here’s how I unpack that argument in the book:

“Anyone even marginally active in the Catholic church has probably attended an event recently when someone looked out at the crowd and rued: ‘Look at the all the gray heads!’ This is universally understood to be a bad thing, whereas a room full of young people would normally be interpreted as a triumph. Such reactions pivot on the common sense assumption that youth equals growth, while old age means decline. Yet given the ‘through the looking glass’ demographic situation in which the global North today finds itself, in many ways the exact opposite is the case.

“By 2030, 6.8 million additional Catholics in the United States will be entering the stage of life where they are most likely to pray, to go to church, to reflect on religious subjects and to be open to a deeper religious commitment. Improvements in general health mean the elderly can remain active members of the church for much longer periods of time. Three in four persons aged 65-74 in the United States, and two in three of those over 75, say their health is ‘good to excellent.’ They also have the means to contribute financially to the church; the advertising firm Martino and Binzer, which specializes in ‘mature marketing,’ estimates that Americans over 55 possess $1.5 trillion in discretionary spending.

“The question is, will the church take advantage of this potential bonanza by reaching out to the elderly population?

“On the positive side of the ledger, the vision to do so is largely in place. Pope John Paul II published a moving ‘Letter to the Elderly’ in 1999, which was the United Nations ‘Year of the Elderly.’ The pope’s own highly visible frailty in his later years stirred Catholic consciousness. The U.S. bishops published their own pastoral document in 1999, ‘The Blessings of Age,’ which states: ‘How the community relates to its older members – recognizing their presence, encouraging their contributions, responding to their needs, and providing appropriate opportunities for spiritual growth – is a sign of the community’s spiritual health and maturity.’

“There are all sorts of moral and spiritual reasons why reluctance to embrace the elderly is unfortunate. Setting that aside for the moment, however, it’s also self-defeating. To put this in crassly commercial terms, the 65+ population represents the most promising ‘growth market’ for the church’s ‘product,’ and in a boom cycle, only a dysfunctional company would fail to adjust its sales and customer service to ride the wave.

“All this suggests the need for a broad ‘gray-friendly’ consciousness in the church. To offer just one practical example, seminaries ought to be encouraging future homilists to slow down in their delivery, since elderly parishioners often struggle to hear when someone is speaking in rapid-fire fashion. Parishes should be ensuring that structures are accessible to the disabled, and to offer transportation programs for senior citizens. Even schedules may need to change. Parishes that cater to younger adults often start faith formation sessions or Bible study groups at 7:00 pm or later, on the theory that by this hour, participants will have returned home from work, taken care of their kids, had dinner, and be ready for something else. Senior citizens often might be more comfortable with events that begin in the early afternoon. All of this should be worked out in local settings by talking to the elderly themselves.

“None of this, of course, means that Catholicism ought to abandon the young. But the basic point is that far from clucking sadly when we see gray heads in the aisles, hearts ought to gladden. If someone were to dream up a program of outreach to marginal Catholics that drew 6.8 million back into active practice of the faith within a quarter-century, it would be hailed as one of the great evangelical success stories of all time. Today, demographics are to some extent doing the job all by themselves.”

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