What is the Life Cycle Effect? Does it Appear in the Data?

By Ryan P. Burge, Eastern Illinois University

Religious attendance is incredibly complicated. I get asked about it a lot. Specifically, media people ask: are people less religiously involved now than they were in prior generations? That’s not an easy question to answer. I know journalists want a short and pithy quote, but that’s just not possible to do in this case. I wanted to write another post in the “explainer” series about church attendance – to try and give a nuanced and data-driven answer surrounding church attendance, the life course, and younger generations.

First, is religious attendance down? Well, it all depends on who you want to include in the sample. What complicates matters is that the percentage of people who are religiously unaffiliated has skyrocketed over the last four decades and obviously many of them never attend church. If we keep them in the sample and calculate average church attendance in the General Social Survey we see a strong downward slope, as is apparent in the blue line in the graph below. To put actual numbers on it, church attendance has declined 14.5% across the range of values since 1972. That’s pretty significant. However, some would argue that including nones in the sample is not answering a key question: have religious people moved away from church attendance? That’s visualized in the pink line in the graph below and the downward movement here is much more subtle. Now the decrease in church-going over a 46 year time frame is 7.8%, about half of what we saw when using the entire sample. So, yes, attendance is down, but if we exclude the “nones” what we are seeing is about .15% decline every year, which is subtle.

However, what complicates things to an incredible degree is that we know that church attendance is not consistent across the life course. In fact, social science has written a lot about this phenomenon. It’s generally referred to as “the life cycle effect.” This theory contends that church attendance ebbs and flows as people move from one stage of life to another. While there are many different conceptions of how this may work, most scholars have coalesced around the model that is displayed in the visualization below.

When an individual is a child and teenager, they likely attend church fairly frequently. The stories of people going to church camp and youth group trips are legion among many religious traditions. It gives kids a social outlet and oftentimes parents like having their children out of the house. However, when an individual turns eighteen, ventures out toward college or career, and leaves a lot of the social institutions that were a big part of their formative years, their church attendance takes a big hit. This period of time is usually filled with a lot of upheaval – lots of moves, different relationships, and job changes. All these factors make it logistically difficult to find a faith community, but this is also the time when many young people are trying to break away from their parents and find their own identity. For many this phase lasts ten to fifteen years.

Then, life begins to settle down. People typically get married or find themselves in committed relationships. Careers begin to emerge. Many couples begin to start a family, and just like their parents before them, they want their offspring to be part of a faith community. So, they go back to church. This continues typically through a person’s early to mid-50’s, until their children graduate high school and move into early adulthood themselves.

Then, parents are left with one of two options: become even more committed members of their church or drift away. Oftentimes as people move into retirement age they need a sense of purpose as well as a social outlet that used to exist through their workplace. Church can provide both of those things for people moving into their sixties. However, others take another path. They come to the realization that they really don’t feel a deep need for religion in their lives. They have a nice group of friends that they see on a regular basis, therefore the social outlets that church provides are not as essential. Church attendance for this group begins to fade over time.

However, the data doesn’t corroborate that story completely. Using the General Social Survey, I broke the sample down into survey years, designating decades in which the survey was being conducted. Then I plotted average church attendance for each subsample between the ages of 18 and 80. Again, we would expect to see some peaks and valleys if the life cycle effect is to be believed. The graph shows some evidence of the life cycle effect, but it’s just a first cut.

Unfortunately, we can’t look at attendance levels of children, because the GSS only surveys adults, so it’s not possible to see that sharp decline from 15 to 25 using these data. Instead, we see when they’ve presumably bottomed out. But, there is much to glean from what we can look at. In every case, we see an upward trend – the older a respondent, the higher the frequency of church attendance. However, notice that the steepest upward slope of the lines of each sample occurs between 20 and 40 years old. This does give some credence to the idea that people attend at low rates in their twenties and thirties, but that rapidly increases as they move into their child-raising phase. Then, we do see a leveling off for most people between forty and sixty. However, for those between sixty and eighty there’s a significant uptick in attendance. As people age, they drift closer to church, in the aggregate. However for some decades of the GSS the line is pointing sharply upward, while in other survey decades it’s a much more gradual incline. Notice, also, that all the trend lines are upward but each subsequent survey subgroup starts lower on the left hand side. It means that the baseline of attendance is slipping downward, overall. This is likely due to the increased number of nones who never attend.

I wanted to take a much deeper dive into the life cycle effect. So, here’s what I did. I broke the GSS sample into birth cohorts, which are five year windows in which individuals were born. The theory here is that these groups of people experienced the same world events at basically the same age. The Great Depression probably had a much different psychological and political impact on a 20 year old than a 60 year old, for instance. Cohort analysis takes that into account. Then I calculated the average church attendance for each birth cohort in age groups ranging from 18 to 25 to those 65 and over. That’s displayed below with 95% confidence intervals indicated by the shaded ribbons. The results are fascinating.

The top row can’t tell us too much – we can’t calculate how often this row attended church at a young age because the GSS wasn’t conducted until 1972. However, the second row begins to bring things into focus. These are people who were born between 1925 and 1949. Note that the general trend of the line is upward – as people aged, their church attendance increased, but only slightly. In most cases the difference was not statistically significant.

If you really want to see the best evidence of a life cycle effect it appears beginning with the 1945-1949 (the Baby Boomer cohort) and extends through those born between 1965 and 1969. There we do see the necessary bump in attendance for those in the 36 to 45 age group. They provide some support for the idea that marriage and child rearing leads to a return back into religious communities. And then the trend line drops back for most groups. In fact, if you remove that little bump for those raising children, it’s a flat trend line across the life course.

What about those more recently? Well, the evidence is inconclusive if we begin with those born in 1970 or later. In fact, the cohort born between 1970-1974 shows zero change in church attendance as they age – there’s no bump in their thirties. However, the next two cohorts show the trend going in opposite directions. For those born between 1975 and 1979 there has been an increase in church attendance as they move into their late thirties and early forties. However, the cohort born between 1980 and 1984 shows a downward trend during this key time period. Additionally, the y-intercept continues to drop for each successive cohort – meaning that younger generations attend less at 18 than prior birth cohorts.

In short, if you are looking for a clear trend in church attendance as people age, you won’t find it here. There is some evidence of a mid-life attendance bump in some cohorts, but not in others. Some cohorts have a clear upward trend their entire lives, while others see no change as they age. To put it succinctly – there’s no pattern here that I can see with a great deal of certainty. One interpretation is that the stereotypical life cycle holds for one generation — the Baby Boomers — and that’s it, no others.

In her recent book, “From Politics to the Pews: How Partisanship and the Political Environment Shape Religious Identity,”  Michele Margolis prominently features the life cycle effect. Margolis argues convincingly that politics may actually be impacting religion for a specific birth cohort – Baby Boomers. However, as demonstrated above, it doesn’t seem like the Baby Boomers’ pattern of religious attendance has been replicated for those who were born in more recent years. It’s something to consider – each generation represents a rethinking of religion.

I know people get tired of hearing this: but it’s incredibly hard to explain how religion works in a person’s life. There are myriad factors that draw someone to faith or push them away. Some people marry early, some wait. Some people are parents of three children by their 30th birthday, while others don’t start a family until closer to 40. One person can experience an unspeakable tragedy and run away from religion, while others find a great deal of comfort in a religious community. Couple that with the fact that the religiously unaffiliated have jumped from 5% to 23% of the population, and it creates an incredibly turbulent social environment. The same is true for religious attendance – every individual has their own story. Sometimes those individuals aggregate up to a distinct pattern, but oftentimes they don’t. I think this is a case where any generalization about church attendance and age is going to be overly reductive. Have young people fled church? Yes, but many will return, only to drift away again. We do know this: church attendance is declining, even among those who identify with a religious tradition. And there appears to be little evidence of a life cycle effect in modern times, starting with Gen X.

Ryan P. Burge teaches at Eastern Illinois University in Charleston, Illinois. He can be contacted via Twitter or his personal website.  The syntax for this post can be found here. 

For Further Reading:

Bahr, Howard M. “Aging and religious disaffiliation.” Social Forces 49.1 (1970): 59-71.

Burge, Ryan. “Are People Leaving the Church?” Religion in Public.

Burge, Ryan. “You want young people to stay in church? Encourage them to go to college, get married, and have kids.” Religion in Public.

Firebaugh, G. and Harley, B., 1991. Trends in US church attendance: Secularization and revival, or merely lifecycle effects?. Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion, pp.487-500.

Margolis, M.F., 2018. From politics to the pews: How partisanship and the political environment shape religious identity. University of Chicago Press.

Stolzenberg, R., Blair-Loy, M., & Waite, L. (1995). Religious Participation in Early Adulthood: Age and Family Life Cycle Effects on Church Membership. American Sociological Review, 60(1), 84-103

2 comments

  1. I am not sure if it is a North American phenomena, but I am British, and I went to church weekly without fail as a child, I was in the church choir, I went to Sunday School, we said prayers every day at home, had teacher led prayers in school (which we still do in the UK). It wasn’t until I got to my teenage years that I started to question my religion, up until that point I was fully indoctrinated. That all fits with your 2nd diagram, where I then differ, is that instead of “wanting children to have a moral foundation” and returning to the church and religion, I became even less religious, and moved from being agnostic, fully identifying as an atheist. I probably go to church less than once every 5 years now; when friends and family have a church based wedding or funeral, and I just quietly contemplate when prayers or hymns are being said/sung.

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