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Study: How do millennial Christians approach faith, work, and calling?

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Millennials recently surpassed Baby Boomers and Generation Xers to become the largest generation in the American workforce—a development that has likely led many to recall the common stereotypes about millennials as dreamy-eyed idealists or lazy, entitled complainers.

But if we look past our various cultural prejudices, what does the evidence actually indicate? If the attitudes and priorities of Generation Y are, in fact, so strikingly distinct from their counterparts, what might it tell us about the future shape of economic order?

In Christians at Work, which is based on a new study from Barna, we get an in-depth look at all this, particularly as it relates to generational differences among employed Christians. The study explores a range of attitudes and beliefs—whether about professional fulfillment, calling, personal gifts, and more—seeking to identify meaningful trends and ways the church might rally to fill gaps in perspective or discipleship.

The findings indicate that such attitudes and beliefs do, indeed, differ between millennials and other generations, with Baby Boomers and Generation Xers aligning closely in most areas. Overall, one trend is clear: Christian millennials emerge as distinctly optimistic and ambitious, whether in the “tangibles” of their daily work and spiritual growth or in their general awareness of how or whether to apply their God-given gifts.

For example, when it comes to professional fulfillment, the study finds that “similar proportions of all working Christians, regardless of age, believe God gave them specific talents intended for his glory.” Yet that unified belief doesn’t necessarily translate consistently across age groups when applied to the context of economic labor:

Christian Millennial workers appear to be finding a place for themselves and their capabilities in the workforce—half (50%) strongly agree they feel made for the work they currently do—and they are hopeful about their future prospects.

Millennials tend to be very conscious of their talents (42%) as well as hopeful for a better understanding of them (37%). They are also motivated to be generous with their unique skills; more than two-thirds (67%) report that they hope to use them in service of others, 10 percentage points more than the proportion of Boomers (57%) motivated by this idea. Overall, Gen X tend to align more with Boomers than Millennials, with some exceptions. Though Gen X are relatively satisfied with how their current role is preparing them for future plans (44%), just 36 percent feel aware of gifts and talents God has given them.

Source: Christians at Work, Barna Group

These differences also manifest on the question of future growth and opportunities to embody or apply one’s God-given vocation. Again, while all three generations share a belief that God has given each of us unique personal talents and abilities, Boomers are far less eager to grow and improve in newly discovering or applying these gifts to daily economic life:

Boomers have less of a sense that they are “made for” their present work (39%) and they feel less urgency to deepen an understanding of their gifts (27%), but we shouldn’t assume that means they aren’t attuned to or using them. They express less enthusiasm about future opportunities, but that may be because they feel more presently secure, having already climbed (or grown skeptical of) the corporate ladder. And given that Boomers often tell Barna their identity is defined by family, we may simply be witnessing a natural shift in life priorities that comes with age. In other words, Millennials might expect more of their professional future because there is more of it, while Boomers are in a less exploratory, even stable, season of career. Regardless, they are similarly satisfied in their current work, and Boomers find purposes for their unique skills outside the office too (80% vs. 71% of Millennials say this is “very” + “somewhat” true), which bodes well for their golden years.

Source: Christians at Work, Barna Group

The reasons for such differences are numerous, and many of them may be related to different ages or life seasons more generally instead of generations specifically. But in addition to those explanations (which the study duly acknowledges), they likely have something to do with differing historical and economic realities at key generational “growth moments.” (This argument is shared by Joseph Sternberg, who’s new book, The Theft of a Decade, explores the economic conditions that have led to the current generation’s attitudes and outlook.)

“Though the economy has largely recovered from the recession, the working lives of many Gen X and Boomers have been marked by spells of unemployment or persistent debt, and the leading edge of Boomers is now preparing for retirement,” the Barna study’s authors explain. “Millennials, meanwhile, entered an unwelcoming job market at the beginning of their careers and are still dogged by low earnings, even as general wages have caught up to pre-recession levels.”

But whatever we attribute for the shifts, the findings provide some hints as to where we might focus and how the church might best proceed in better empowering and equipping each generation in stewarding their economic futures and developing a distinctly and comprehensively Christian economic vision.

For Boomers and, somewhat less so, Generation Xers, we see an opportunity reinvigorate and re-inspire a sense of calling and vocational destiny across all spheres and stations. For example, regardless of our personal feelings about whether we are “made for” our present work, we know that we are made to create and trade, just as we are made to love and serve the least of these. This is our basic calling, and these are the functions of our daily work—whether within a formal job or the context of “retirement.” Whatever our age or season or history, we can push and learn and discover new ways of using our gifts and co-creating for his glory.

For millennials, on the other hand, we see more widespread energy and enthusiasm for embracing the “spiritual” side of work and using creative gifts in meaningful and authentic ways. Yet we also see a hunger for more discipleship and better education. For example, while millennials report hearing more sermons and guidance from the church on these matters, “less than half say their church gives them a vision for living out their faith at work (46% vs. 57% of Gen X and 53% of Boomers agree ‘strongly’).” How do we harness this ambition and optimism and channel it through a robust theology of work and a healthy philosophy of life?

“There is much to celebrate about Christians in the workplace!” the authors conclude. “Christians are tuned in to the idea of calling, and many feel that their current jobs are well matched with what they perceive as their calling,” write David Kinnaman and Bill Denzel in the study’s introduction. “But there are also warning signs all around our workplaces. We see some gaps between generations at work and a potential lack of vision for how generations can mentor and support each other.”

Whatever the areas or potential for growth, a positive shift among Christians is sure to have an influence on our culture, more broadly. If the church can work together across generational lines to empower believers in building a healthier, more holistic vision for economic activity and the common good, and if those same believers bear cultural witness in their respective spheres, society at large will surely benefit.

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Joseph Sunde is an associate editor and writer for the Acton Institute. His work has appeared in venues such as The Federalist, First Things, The Christian Post, The Stream, Intellectual Takeout, Foundation for Economic Education, Patheos, LifeSiteNews, The City, Charisma News, The Green Room, Juicy Ecumenism, Ethika Politika, Made to Flourish, and the Center for Faith and Work. Joseph resides in Minneapolis, Minnesota with his wife and four children.

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