Robert N. Butler of the Columbia Aging Center, Mailman School of Public Health, recently conducted a study that shows that the relative portion of older believers in the world’s religions will shift in the coming decades.
Jews had the largest portion of seniors in 2010, with 20 percent being age 60 and older. On the low end of the scale, Muslims represented only 7 percent of this age group. The study projects that by 2050, Buddhists and the religiously unaffiliated will both be at 32 percent for the greatest portion of oldest members. Muslims are expected to remain the youngest religious group with only 16 percent. Christians’ global population will age relatively slowly, and will increase from 14 percent in 2010, to 21 percent in 2050.
The study used more than 2,500 data sources from 198 countries. These included demographic surveys, censuses and other population surveys, accounting for more than 99 percent of the world population. The researchers spent more than half a decade to identify and synthesize the data to build up a global dataset.
This is the first study to account for aging, and mortality and fertility rates between religious groups. The study also looked at almost all countries identifying religious conversion and secularization trends.
Vegard Skirbekk, PhD, of the Columbia Aging Center and professor of Population and Family Health at the Mailman School is the study’s lead author. He notes that changes in religious groups’ age distributions could potentially have far-reaching implications for society.
One area that could be affected by age variation in religious distributions is the degree of cooperation and the risk of conflict. For example – conflict between religious groups whose members are younger is more common and does not occur as often among groups with larger numbers of older people.
Skirbekk cites public spending as another example. Previous research by others has suggested that willingness to pay for public social welfare programs can reduce when those who contribute have different ethno-cultural characteristics from those who are beneficiaries. Within religious groups with contrasting age patterns, this could potentially affect the sustainability of, and the level of support for social welfare programs.
The age of believers can also shape how a religion is practiced. Skirbekk thinks that older age groups tend to emphasize religion in terms of:
- Traditions and norms.
- Its relevance for intergenerational relationships and support.
- Coping strategies in the event of health challenges.
- Solace and relief in the face of life challenges and disease.
- Rituals relating to end-of-life practices.
In contrast, younger individuals may seek religion for choice of lifestyles and as guidance for behavior, education, work and family formation.
Religion also shapes lifestyle choices, such as through rules on diet and alcohol consumption. Demographic changes would therefore also shape the health of older adults. The role of religion tends to change over the life course in the context of fewer remaining years of life and increasing prevalence of disease. When trying to cope with illness at later stages of life, many seek religious answers.
The demographic shifts could finally also affect how various religions are perceived, especially for those without a religious affiliation.
Skirbekk is of the opinion that the religiously unaffiliated will age rapidly on a global scale. This could potentially cause them to transform from a group representing the future to one representing the past on an increasing level.