A review of Bibby, Reginald W., Joel Thiessen, and Monetta Bailey. 2019. The Millennial Mosaic: How Pluralism and Choice Are Shaping Canadian Youth and the Future of Canada. Toronto: Dundurn. Part of this review was submitted to the Review of Religious Research.
Let me say first it’s great to have a Canadian book with Canadian data on the subject of Canadian youth. We read far to much American research on the subject—and mostly because it’s more readily available. But the USA is a different country, and while it’s great comparative research, it’s not data that applies as directly to our young adults.
In typical Bibby fashion, the tone here is optimistic: “The kids are alright. And Canada will be alright!” (226) This book brings together numerous survey material to help understand the culture of the Millennial generation, which they define as 1985-2005. Surveys include Environics 2016 (N=3,072), Vision Critical 2016 (N=800) and their own national surveys in 2015 and 2016 (total N=6000 with N=1000 Millennials). Bibby compares with his Project Teen Canada data from the mid-1980s onwards and his Project Canada data from 1975 to the present, enabling some cross-generational comparisons and some longitudinal study of older generations across time. So the book draws, as they say, on a “gold mine” of youth and adult data.
“The kids are alright. And Canada will be alright!”Bibby, Thiessen and Bailey
They say they are theoretically eclectic and use the cultural theme of pluralism as a frame for the study of Millennials. Pluralism isn’t too sharply defined, except to say “pluralism is Canada’s response to diversity” and that means “a conscious effort to understand and accept differences, to interact and learn from one another” (7). Closely related are the notions of individual autonomy and choice—mostly mediated through electronic devices. They pick and choose not only products at the mall, but their religion, their sexuality, gender, and even race.
Popular Audience, Depth in Details
The book is packed with charts, graphs and sidebars covering such topics as Millennials’ values, social issues, sexuality, family life, religion, and expectations. Intended for a popular audience, the authors state, “we want this to be an enjoyable conversation, not a lifeless report written by dull clinicians” (6). Baby Boomer Reginald Bibby has been putting out books like this for decades, and here he is joined by two Gen X co-authors, Joel Thiessen and Moneta Bailey, two sociology professors at Ambrose University.
The Christian commitments of the three authors is never mentioned, and curiously, their critique of relativistic pluralism is an extended quote from New Atheist Sam Harris (246). A Christian critique of relativism would have seemed more authentic to me on this page and would have avoided the highly contentious suggestion from Harris that science is a universal source of morality. That’s the old Enlightenment creed. Christian writers like C. S. Lewis, for example, would offer a similar but better argument based on a form of natural law (see his Mere Christianity, chapter one). This could be mentioned without turning the book into an unsightly “Christian” text, which I think is the worry of many Christians in the Canadian public academy. There is an identity risk for professors that encourages self-censorship (see George Marden on that term in his book The Outrageous Idea of Christian Scholarship), especially in the humanities and social sciences in Canada, and it ironically takes away from an opportunity to model a principled pluralism that would be right on topic with the focus of the book. While texts certainly vary in degrees, there are no books written with just scientific “data” for the public: everything is an interpretation, from the first choice in data selection to the very last stated implication of research. Anyways, that’s a longer comment than I intended to make about a smaller part of the book.
Both God and the devil are in the details in this book. To dip into some noteworthy findings, a significant generational change is the delaying of adulthood, sometimes called emerging adulthood caused by economic realities but also “helicopter” parenting. “Many students are ill-prepared to deal with life’s expected hurdles and disappointments,” they comment (156). One of the most statistically important shifts comes with Millennials’ loneliness—half of them rate this personal concern as “a great deal” or “quite a bit” (up 19 percent from the pre-Internet age). This is a stunning statistic with all kinds of implications for mental health.
“Many students are ill-prepared to deal with life’s expected hurdles and disappointments.”– authors of Millennial Mosaic
In terms of sexuality, Millennials have little humour for the subject, and tend see it as “no big deal.” 72 percent of Millennials approve and accept same-sex marriage, and 90 percent maintain that increasing acceptance of transgender people is a positive development. In this light, transgender rights are “the next civil rights frontier,” claim the authors. Pre-marital sex approval, interesting enough, has actually gone down, interpreted as “freedom means the freedom to do it and not to do it” for Millennials (I also think cell phones are a prophylactic). They inherited the 60s sexual revolution, but have little to contextualize it with, little restraint to fall back on; so perhaps they are recognizing the value of restraint on their own. Sexual activity of youth has gone up a few percentage points, and STDs have increased. Finally, some 17 percent of Millennials identify as LGBTQ (verses 7 percent of the rest of the population). That’s about one in six young adults, and it provokes some questions about why, most of which I believe can be found in cultural factors.
In terms of religion, 7 in 10 Millennials identify with a religious group, while only 3 in 10 attend religious services at least once a month. Yet those that identify as “spiritual but not religious” (37 percent) and “neither religious nor spiritual” (30 percent) makes 67 percent who do not identify as religious. Millennials must be identifying with a religion but simultaneously not identifying as religious. It would be good to compare these statistics with the Evangelical Fellowship of Canada’s Maru 2019 survey on religion in Canada (N=5015), which emphasized more the increasing number of “AASN,” made up of atheists, agnostics, and spiritual (but not religious), which they gauge to be at 50 percent of the Canadian population. There may be future fruitful research here.
Pluralism is their DNA, But a Limited Form
In general, the book challenges some of the negative stereotypes of Millennials (as entitled know-it-alls with no sense of history and very short attention spans) and suggests they are much like other generations at an earlier stage of development—just with more electronic devices. What they emphasize is that this demographic is more thoroughly saturated by a culture that embraces and defends difference, motivated especially to protect minorities as a matter of social justice. “Pluralism is in their DNA,” write the authors, and fairness—rather than tradition or universal truth—is their rallying cry (230). In fact, this deep value placed on diversity seems so strong, I would suggest it has a quasi-religious character to it. It seems to be the measure of all things, more important than unity, morality, and tradition, to the point where it seems beyond questioning and at times even discussing. That gives it a sacred quality. (photo: pixabay)
An interesting section in the end interrogates the mantra of “celebrate diversity,” suggesting that diversity is not a social good in itself; in fact, it can lead to much conflict. Neither can pluralism just become a superficial endorsement of all options. Diversity must be engaged from a place of conviction to bring richness to our lives, and the freedom of choice in a pluralistic culture is only life-giving when we choose for the good—for our own good and the common good. This form of “principled pluralism” was promoted in Canadian Donald Posterski’s True to You: Living Our Faith in a Multi-Minded World (Woodlake 1995)—written before some Millennials were even born. A hundred years before that, Dutch Prime Minister Abraham Kuyper made such pluralism the cornerstone of his political philosophy. In other words, a more rigorous and thoughtful pluralism has been available for decades, but it seems a more superficial—and at the same time limited—form of pluralism has become enshrined for this generation. I say “limited” because what “diversity” means isn’t always so diverse. To be fair, they are still young and have time to expand their worldview. Most generations do, as the decades roll by.
Pluralism as a political system that makes room for a variety of religious and philosophical institutions to flourish (faith communities, religious schools, labour unions, political parties)–in a way that takes us beyond a secular hegemony–is the most robust and rich form of pluralism.
In an age of hyper-individualism, I believe we need to actively curate our ethnic and religious communities–as mediating institutions in a world dominated by large governments and even larger markets. In fact, if we do not steward and nurture vibrant, traditioned communities as Canadians, in time there will be no diversity to celebrate and engage! We will all be left as consumers bound by the preferences of the day, which is really the appetites of our individual selves in a market of fragmented options. Tradition gives us a ballast for life, and gives people a place to call home. Yes, traditions can confine and abuse, too, so discernment is vital. So this is not a nostalgic note on my part, as the best traditions are dynamic, living bodies that flourish through on-going self-critique. We need to realize that individualism is hurting our young people, and the rising loneliness factor, coupled with the echo chambers of the internet, make community life beyond like-minded peer groups more vitally important than ever.
Of course, I believe the Christian tradition offers a deeply meaningful and vibrant spiritual home–as a book by my former professor states, The True Story of the Whole World (Goheen and Bartholomew). That’s the invitation at least. I say elsewhere, the goal is not to “get with the youth” (which is patronizing and really a hopeless quest as they are themselves “diverse”!) but to discern where God may be leading Christians today in their local contexts. That quest would be a partnership, ideally, with all generations.
This blog, sensus divinitatus, contains biographies of older Canadian Christians (Abraham Kuyper, Bert Witvoet, Ruth Hayhoe, Rudy Wiebe, Justin Cooper, Albert Wolters, George Vandervelde, Gaele Visser). These “elders of the tradition” offer a big-picture perspective at least as important as the fresh intuitions of Millennials. As multiple generations cooperating together we might find better solutions to what ails us.
Millennials stand at the top of the 21 century, equipped with multiple devices, protective of the diversity they so deeply value.
More Optimism Means Less Prophetic
This book is rich in data, light on analysis, and fairly comprehensive in terms of the cultural topics it explores. And its tone is consistently optimistic, which often means light on the prophetic side. Granted, they wanted to focus on data, but all data presentation is ipso facto interpretive. For example, it is arguable to what extent Canada is a unified mosaic and not a fragmented arrangement of algorithmically sorted sub-cultures. If the 2020 Massey Lectures by Ron Diebert entitled Reset: Reclaiming the Internet for Civil Society (Anansi) are any indication, the pervasiveness of electronic media challenge any easy optimism about our shared future. Additionally, the lines between electronic media, consumerism, and pluralism are a fine ones, leaving many Millennials in the “multiphrenia” paralysis Kenneth Gergen talked about already 30 years ago in The Saturated Self: The Dilemmas of Identity in Contemporary Life (Basic 1992). “Choice” is a consumer notion at least as much as it is inherent in our current diversity culture. American sociologist Christian Smith, too, seems more worried about the dark prospects for Millennials—see for example his Lost in Transition: The Dark Side of Emerging Adulthood (Oxford 2011). The kids are not alright, but as the authors of Millennial Mosaic say, every generation has had its challenges. There will be casualties, but resilience is not beyond Millennials.
In the conclusion, the authors of The Millennial Mosaic toss in “wildcard” variables that will potentially shift the generation’s future in unexpected ways: technology (which should be more specifically electronic media), immigration, recession, right-wing backlash, global warfare, and TBA (unknown variable). Climate change is not mentioned, but more significantly, just months after the book was published, TBA became the most notable agent of social change in the form of a global pandemic. How that shifts Millennial values and expectations will require another book, but especially for the younger set of Millennials, these months out of school and all the politics, protocols and fears that surround cultural response will certainly be formative in terms of their approach to life as citizens of Canada. Maybe the pandemic will offer them a perspective that appreciates the unity found in common cause and which gives meaning to the fragmented richness of diversity.