MICHAEL MASON, ANDREW SINGLETON and RUTH WEBBER, The Spirit of Generation Y: Young People’s Spirituality in a Changing Australia. Australia: John Garratt Publishing. 2007. pp. 352. Paperback. ISBN 987-1-920721-46-6.
Reviewed by Karen Monique Gregg, The University of Notre Dame, NOTRE DAME, INDIANA 46556.

This book broadly examines religious change by exploring the ‘spirit’ or ‘spirituality’ of youth in Australia who represent Generation Y (1981 to 1995). ‘Spirit’ is understood as a teen’s deepest sense of self, that is, “what makes them go” (15). ‘Spirituality’ refers to the interior dimension of a person’s religious life. These researchers define ‘spirituality’ as “a conscious way of life based on a transcendent referent” (39). Their main object of interest is “whatever cognitive structures are in place to fulfill the function of providing intelligibility, order and meaning to an individual’s experience” (39). Thus, they count as “religious” a very wide range of spiritual options which they narrow down to a typology of three that best characterize the youth of Australia: 1) Traditional; 2) New Age; and 3) Secular. Within each, further categorizations are constructed in order to provide more subtle detail within each type. Not only do these researchers make meaningful comparisons within these typologies, they also make generational comparisons between the older cohorts of Baby Boomers (1946-1965) and Generation X (1966-1980). And throughout the book, when appropriate, differences in denominations are discussed.

This study was conducted over a period of five years and employed a multi-stage design using three stages of data collection. Stage one included a non-representative sample of 91 extended interviews with a diverse range of young people. This stage was intended to get a sense of the variety and types of spirituality of Australian youth. Information derived from these interviews formed the basis and direction of stage two. Stage two consisted of a national telephone survey conducted in 2005 randomly drawn from all Australian States and Territories (N=1619). Age of respondents ranged from 13 to 59 years old. Sampling outside the age range of Generation Y allowed these authors to make meaningful comparisons with Baby Boomers and Generation X. In the final stage of this design a second round of 26 personal interviews was conducted with respondents who had participated in an earlier phase of the project. Many of these respondents were selected based on the type of spirituality previously reported or because they had been through a significant life change since the original interview.

Laced throughout the book are careful comparisons with other well-known national studies of youth, e.g., Christian Smith’s (2005) study of U.S. teens, Soul Searching, and S. Savage and colleagues’ (2006) study of youth in the U.K., Making Sense of Generation Y. These types of comparisons are invaluable for understanding the religious worlds of youth on a global level. More studies such as these are needed from scholars around the world. These authors also expertly use other forms of data to enhance their analyses, e.g., the World Values Survey, current Australian census data and other studies of Australia, to compare and contrast their own findings.

Mason, Singleton and Webber recognize that the youth of any culture represent the future of that society and therefore aim to understand the societal implications that the varieties of spirituality among young people can have. Therefore, they pursue questions such as: What are our young people like? What are their beliefs and values? How are they responding to the changing environment? In what direction will they take our society in the future? Although these general research questions are very broad, Chapters 3-11 explore many more highly specific questions which should be relevant to all those engaged with young people, including parents, youth workers, school professionals, city planners, religious leaders and others. These specific questions are far too numerous to list, however suffice it to say that interesting and at times surprising answers emerge in studying the spirituality of this cohort of young Australians.

Chapter 1 consists of highlights from interviews with several young people who clearly depict the three distinct paths of spirituality of Australian youth: 1) Traditional; 2) New Age; and 3) Secular. This typology is used throughout the rest of the book. Most of the background and hypotheses tested in this study are set forth in Chapter 2. Although not explicitly stated as such, said hypotheses are easy to locate with such prefaces as, “we firmly expected…,” or “we found reason to anticipate.” The reader will find that these expectations and/or anticipations are easily matched with the findings in Chapter 12. However, because of the dense amount of information, tables and findings that are covered between this chapter and Chapter 12 the reader may assume that the hypotheses have been left aside. However, by Chapter 12 the authors wrap up with an organized summary of Expectations/Findings/Discussion/Conclusion for each and every hypothesis they set forth much earlier in the book. To guide the reader, at the beginning of Chapter 2 the authors offer a detour straight to the discussion of findings. For those who do not take the detour a brief description is given below of the chapters in between 2 and 12.

Chapters 3 through 6 directly pertain to the Traditional type. Chapter 3 specifically focuses on the beliefs of Generation Y and breaks down the believers into denominations. However, these researchers aptly assert that it takes more than belief to represent spirituality. It also entails how beliefs are lived out (or not) in the everyday lives of youth. Thus, Chapter 4 examines how each type puts their beliefs into practice (or not). This chapter also explores the reasons why youth no longer attend religious services and reveals that about two-thirds of youth who do not attend actually at one time had attended or attended more frequently in the past. Could this be a sign of secularization? These authors think so. Chapter 5 summarizes the two largest groups of believers of Australian youth, Catholics (21%) and Anglicans (8%), as well as Other Christians (17%) and Other Religions (6%). Surprisingly, these authors find that 48% of Australian youth report no denominational affiliation. In Chapter 6 these researchers analyze the different levels of commitment within the Traditional type and further develop their typology into Committed, Regular, Marginal and Nominal.

Chapters 7 and 8 focus on the other two strands of Australian youth spirituality: New Age and Secular. The New Age spirituality type is more closely examined in Chapter 7. These authors make an important distinction between those who explore New Age alternatives to traditional religion and those who actually put New Age beliefs into practice. They find that New Age participation is associated with being female and older in Generation Y and that some New Agers also practice Traditional Religion as well. This is followed in Chapter 8 by an in-depth look at the Secular type which surprisingly makes up 28% of Generation Y. The authors break down the Secular type into three distinct sub-types: 1) the Nonreligious (10%); 2) the Ex-religious (4%); and 3) the Undecided (14%). They also find that the most skeptical in this group are those aged 25-39.

Chapter 9 takes a decisive cultural turn in order to explore the different cultural contexts and social influences on teen spirituality in Australia. Cultural influences such as consumerism, individualism, technological advancements and pop culture are all closely examined. The authors review and compare the social and contextual differences of the Baby Boomers, Generation X and Generation Y. Chapter 10 is aptly titled “Spirituality and the rest of life,” because it focuses on the relationship between spirituality and beliefs, values and attitudes as it delves into the things that youth consider important in life and the activities they enjoy. The authors find that the majority of youth are optimistic about the future and maintain a degree of confidence about their direction in life. Chapter 11 explores youth interest and involvement in the wider social world. Do Australian youth today have a concern for others and if so, do they take action to implement change? Will the youth today make for good citizens tomorrow? These researchers found little cause for optimism in answering these questions.

Chapter 12 is foreshadowed throughout the book. This is because the bulk of analysis is located in this chapter. Not only do the authors review the most important findings of their work here, they also elaborate on the explanations about what they have found. As mentioned above, hypotheses are brought back into sharp focus and detailed discussion and conclusion follows each finding. Many readers will opt for the detour offered in Chapter 2 and will want to skip straight for this chapter.

The authors do not claim to be experts in youth. Therefore, they leave some food for thought for those who are. Chapter 13 sketches out several proposals on how the findings in the study may be applied for those who work with youth.

This is a very descriptive book and there is something in it for most all academicians studying youth as well as the general public. It is a basic, but comprehensive and essential report of the spirituality of contemporary youth in Australia. Though, what it lacks in depth, it makes up for in breadth. It is obvious that these authors have done their homework in the social sciences because this book directly contributes to the secularization debate on a global level, discusses the closing gap in spirituality between men and women, addresses the market model promoted in the New Paradigm in the sociology of religion, and situates Generation Y within their own demographic and social context. Moreover, these authors expertly comingle qualitative interviews with basic quantitative analyses throughout the book. In so doing, very basic descriptive tables and bivariate and multivariate analyses are discussed as each chapter unfolds. Although these statistics lack sophistication, this can either work in the authors' favor or against it. In their favor, simple models and analyses are good because nearly everyone should be able to comprehend the major take away points of this book. This also makes the book appealing to a very wide audience. Working against them though are the more sophisticated readers who notice that important details are left out. For example, at times the authors point to associations without discussing the magnitude or statistical significance of the effects. This leaves the reader wanting to know more and perhaps requires more explanations than these authors can, or maybe intend, to provide. Nevertheless, the tables and analyses provided are very simple, easy to read and understand and provide a basic and contemporary description of Australian youth spirituality.


Amazon.com - Continuum - Crossroad - Eerdmans Publishing - Liturgical Press - Orbis Books