Commentary: Gen X Latter-day Saints — the forgotten generation

(Courtesy photo) Jana Riess

This weekend, some righteous hell broke out over the internet, as CBS News posted the BuzzFeed news story “Are Millennials the ‘Burnout Generation’?”

The backlash wasn’t because of what was there — but because of what wasn’t. There was the stodgy silent generation (b. 1928–1945, according to Pew), the huge baby boomer generation (b. 1946–1964), and the cohort everybody’s got their knickers in a twist about: the millennials (b. 1981–1996).

Even the millennials’ kid siblings, Generation Z or the “post-millennials” (b. 1997–present), got a nice little shoutout.

But Generation X had been systematically erased. Basically, according to this news story, everyone in America ages 38 to 53 are los desaparecidos.

It’s not the first time, either. According to generational researchers William Strauss and Neil Howe, we Gen Xers have been neglected for most of our lives.

If boomers were the golden age children in America, the adored symbols of our hard-won victory in World War II, Gen Xers were “latchkey kids growing up hard,” the nomadic and cynical Han Solos of the generational paradigm. Strauss and Howe say we were underprotected as children compared to the boomers before us and the coddled millennials after us.

If you want to see this underprotection in action, you don’t have to read their research; just watch the Netflix hit “Stranger Things.” The authors of that show entirely nailed my childhood, minus the murderous faceless monster, of course. Like those characters, my friends and I biked all over town blissfully unsupervised; as long as we were home in time for dinner nobody asked where we had been for the past 10 hours on a summer day. We were free-range kids before there was a name for it.

Now this Gen Xer is all grown up, and I’ve spent many hours researching generational difference as it pertains to religion in America, particularly for Latter-day Saints. And this is the part where I apologize to all Latter-day Saints my age: Gen Xers are the unacknowledged bastard middle children of my new book “The Next Mormons.” It’s primarily a book about millennials.

I’m really sorry. I do feel bad when I think about Gen X Latter-day Saints idling forgotten in our minivans while we wait for our Gen Z high schoolers to finish whatever programmed activity they’re doing now. (Some of us while away the time listening to old recordings of “Saturday’s Warrior.”)

So if I can’t do a book about us, let me at least offer a blog post. And here’s the basic thing: Everyone talks about how millennials are changing religion in America, but Gen Xers did it first. We were just too small a generation for folks to take much notice. So typical.

In the Next Mormons Survey, Gen Xers are consistently more like their millennial younger siblings than like their elders, the baby boomers and silent generation. They’re almost always the quintessential middle kids.

Consider this finding on how Latter-day Saints of different generations feel about conformity and obedience:

(Christopher Cherrington | The Salt Lake Tribune)

As you can see, only three in 10 older Latter-day Saint are fussed about this particular emphasis in the church; 69 percent have no issue with it at all. Gen Xers and millennials, however, are pretty conflicted. The major generational drop on this issue doesn’t begin with the millennials, but with Gen Xers, just over half of whom are bothered by the focus on conformity and obedience.

Then, too, Gen Xers, not millennials, started the problems with Latter-day Saint retention. With silents and boomers, members kept about three-quarters of the people who grew up in the church, according to General Social Survey data stretching back to 1973. With Gen Xers, retention goes down to more like six in 10, and with millennials it drops still further, as I explain in the book.

That’s not to say that Gen Xers who remain in the church aren’t devout. Most are very religious, especially when compared to non-Mormon Americans. Gen X Latter-day Saints, though, are less dogmatic about their beliefs than boomer/silent Latter-day Saints (though they are more sure than millennials). Here’s what Gen X Mormons say about Christ’s resurrection:

(Christopher Cherrington | The Salt Lake Tribune)

Seven in 10 Gen X Latter-day Saints are “confident and know” that Christ’s resurrection was a literal, actual event; another 18 percent believe it’s true. This means that a whopping nine out of 10 Gen X church members believe in the resurrection.

So, Gen X Latter-day Saint in the United States embody some contradictions. We’re deeply religious, but higher numbers of us are leaving the church than older Mormons have done. We’re not quite as Republican as older Latter-day Saints, but the GOP still holds a 2-to-1 majority in our generation (59 percent GOP vs. 29 percent Democratic). We tithe, but some of us are doing so from net income, not gross.

In short, we’re a generation in the middle. Which is how it’s always been for Gen Xers, a small cohort sandwiched between the huge baby boom and the boomlet millennials.

But don’t you forget about us. Don’t, don’t, don’t, don’t. . . .