Scholars See Baby Boomers’ Great Legacy In The Millennials

January 7, 2006 | By Ray Waddle

An image haunts me:

The last living baby boomer, age 125, dying in a hospice bed, year 2089, weakly humming the theme to Gilligan’s Island, surrounded by Beatles memorabilia and journalists, who stand poised to record the final thoughts of the remaining survivor of the largest demographic in U.S. history.

While ancient Gen-Xers keep vigil outside to bid good riddance, the final bedside words come in a raspy send-off: “I’m not religious …I’m spiritual…”

Then finally: “Cool…”

This week the first wave of boomers turns 60. Like every other boomer experience, it’s a cosmic milestone and a magazine cover.

All their (our) lives, boomers (defined here as the 78 million born in 1946 through 1964) have been lauded or blamed for transforming American politics and tastes, religion included. Through graying hair and bifocals, we’re now getting a clearer view of that spiritual legacy.

Boomer religion was always part revolution, part hype. After Vietnam and Watergate, boomers became anti-institutional (though not all were). They discarded the worship habits of their World War II elders (not all did). They were spiritual seekers in a glittering era of prosperity (not everyone’s experience).

The myth said boomers left the church in the 1960s but came back in the ‘80s. More sober estimations say perhaps one-third of boomers left organized religion permanently, one-third returned when they started having kids, and one-third never left in the first place.

Thanks to boomers, suspicion of authority became an ingrained national habit. They turned the individual spiritual quest into an American pastime. Education levels rose; so did individual autonomy. Today, many boomers go to worship while remaining skeptical about traditional belief. And many drop-outs consider themselves intensely God-centered.

Boomers demanded something more from institutional faith too. It should fit their personal needs. This forced congregations to learn marketing skills, loosen the dress code and create new kinds of faith experiences.

“This generation doesn’t go to church out of habit but for specific reasons. They expect church to be relevant and give them hope,” says Dale Robble, minister at Highland Park Church, a local congregation that stresses a come-as-you-are approach.

“Something’s missing from their life. They tried to fill it with money, sex or power, but something’s still missing—God. We make sure the message they hear is, ‘I matter to God, I understand how God can use me in life.’ “

Boomers brought another element to religion: ideological conflict. Culture wars over abortion, race, foreign policy and homosexuality all erupted in boomer times. Organized religion may yet implode in anguished division.

Megachurches, a boomer invention, fashioned a solution—emphasis on pragmatic preaching and rousing music, with an eradication of conflict.

A half-century ago, boomer religion meant guitar Masses, the mystic writings of Carlos Castaneda and sermon references to Hey Jude. Now, boomers are gatekeepers of the sanctuary down the street, facing budget goals and trying to figure out the new generation, its puzzling music, yearnings and technology.

For decades, boomer flamboyance cried out to be noticed. Boomers turned the study of generational differences into an art form. Now, it haunts them. Every post-boomer generation (Gen-X, Generation Now, the Millennials) has its own self-conscious style and defiance.

Every local congregation must ponder in detail how to reach the next wave of youth and bridge the roaring generation gaps.

That fragmentation (every generation has its own fierce identity), idealism (everyone can be reached) and pragmatism (we’ll figure out how to do it) are boomer legacies.

In such a climate, an analysis by the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America ( offers a hopeful word about the newest generation, the Millennials (born 1982-2002).

Research says Millennials show a surprising interest in classic faith, ancient worship practices and eclectic music. They grew up in an era more tolerant of children (remember the “baby on board” signs in the ‘80s), with many raised in yuppie privilege.

Scholars Neil Howe and William Strauss call them the next great generation. They’re energetic, team-oriented and community-minded—potential world-saving spiritual heroes.

Forget gourmet coffee, VH-1 and casual Friday. The great boomer legacy, with luck, will be their children and grandchildren—the Millennial generation, slowly imagining a better world in the boomer twilight.