Reflections on the American Future
What are the Implications for America’s Jews?
By Steven Windmueller, Ph.D.
As citizens Jews have a profound interest in and connection with the welfare of this society. More directly, Jewish policy makers will need to pay attention to the emerging data that is now coming online as demographic trends and social and political realities are fundamentally reshaping this nation and its character.
What are the important markers that the Jewish community should be actively monitoring, and what role can the Jewish community play in educating and preparing its constituencies as well as the larger society for these fundamental cultural and economic shifts?
In this article we will examine several of the political, demographic, and religious indicators:
- The American Political Mindset
- The New Demographic Reality
- The Changing Religious Equation
The American Political Mindset:
Introduced below are a number of reflections offered by Americans about the state of their nation. A Pew Study on 2050 offered the following assessment of America’s importance in the world:
“Six-in-ten adults predict that that the U.S. will be less important in the world in 2050. While most key demographic groups share this view, it is more widely held by whites and those with more education. About two-thirds of whites (65%) forecast a diminished role in the world for the U.S. in 30 years, a view shared by 48% of blacks and Hispanics. Roughly seven-in-ten adults with a bachelor’s or higher degree (69%) see a lesser role internationally for America. By contrast, six-in-ten of those with some college education (but no bachelor’s degree) and 52% of those with less education are as pessimistic about the country’s future world stature.”
This same study pointed to a general belief that over the next 30 years the US economy would be weaker, the national debt would be greater and that income inequality would be wider. Moving forward, Americans appear to be divided over the state of race relations within our society.
According to a government study, the financial challenges facing this nation are likely to accelerate:
To summarize, because of demographic changes and rising medical costs, federal expenditures for entitlement programs are projected to rise sharply over the next few decades. Dealing with the resulting fiscal strains will pose difficult choices.
In a recent poll 8 in 10 Americans worry about a dysfunctional government. According to a 2018 Pew study, 7 in 10 Americans are unhappy with the current direction of the country.
That study also reports that the nation is experiencing a different type of generational political renaissance:
“There are … wide gaps opening up between the generations on many social and political issues. Young adult Millennials are much more likely than their elders to hold liberal views on many political and social issues, though they are also less likely to identify with either political party: 50% call themselves political independents.”
The New Demographic Reality:
Below, a number of social trends reflecting the changing character and composition of this nation by race, religion and age are being introduced:
By 2050, the United States will be a multi-racial majority. Hispanics, African-Americans, Asians and others will comprise the “new majority.” 23% of Americans believe that this changing equation is “bad for America.” When asked if these new multi-cultural population changes to our society will strengthen the customs and values of our nation, some 42% of Democrats and 13% of Republicans agreed.
Asians are now the only major racial or ethnic group whose numbers are rising primarily as a result of immigration. Today, a near-record 14% of the country’s population is foreign born compared with just 5% in 1965.
After more than four decades in which those households served as the nation’s economic majority, the share of U.S. adults living in middle-income households dropped below 50%.
By the year 2050 Americans over the age of 65 will outnumber those individuals younger than 18, marking a major demographic shift in this nation. As America ages, increasingly its citizens are expressing concerns about the availability of services and government resources to serve a “greying America.” In addition, 72% of Americans believe that younger people will be less prepared financially for their retirement. 42% of younger Americans believe that there will be no Social Security benefits when they are set to retire and an additional 42% think that upon their retirement Social Security benefits will be reduced.
A ripple effect of the aging factor involves today’s Baby Boomer generation, where many of whom are not retiring. This creates new challenges for Millennials and others to obtain mobility within the work force.
Millennials are this nation’s most “racially diverse adult generation in American history.” According to the Pew findings, 43% of Millennials are nonwhite, the highest share of any generation. While they will be America’s most educated generation, this achievement comes at a price, as students are reporting that they are struggling with educational loans. Nonetheless, this generation is very upbeat about their future, with eight of ten indicating that they have enough money to lead their lives or expect to in the future.
In 2016 a record number of people or 20% of the U.S. population, lived with multiple generations under one roof, even with improvements in the U.S. economy since the Great Recession. Meanwhile, 78.6 million adults, or about 32% of the U.S. adult population, reported being a part of a shared household, reflecting an increasingly common living arrangement. A shared household represents a household configuration involving several adults and/or students. Cohabitation among unmarried partners is rising, including among a growing share of unmarried parents.
The Changing Religious Equation:
The share of U.S. adults living without a spouse or partner has also increased, from 39% in 2007 to 42% in 2017. The share of adults reporting they are married also varies widely across U.S. religious groups. For instance, six-in-ten or more Mormons, members of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) and members of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America are married, compared with fewer than four-in-ten atheists, agnostics and those who say their religion is “nothing in particular.”
Just 43 percent of Americans identify as both white and Christian. Only 30 percent of American identify as white and Protestant. In 40 years, the population of white Christians in this nation has dropped nearly in half. A 1976 General Social Survey found that 81 percent of Americans identified as white and Christian, and a majority – 55 percent – were white Protestants.
“Religious nones” represent today a diverse group comprised of atheists, agnostics, the spiritual, and those who identify with no specific organized religion. A rejection of organized religion is the common thread they share. The meteoric rise of religious nones began in the early 1990s and has grown 266% since 1991. ‘No Religion’ will be the largest group outright in four to six years.
As American religious life changes, this nation will see the emergence of new faith communities, as Muslems, Hindus and Buddhists among other traditions play an increasingly more visible role within this society. Within the next twenty years, Islam will replace Judaism as America’s third major religious community (Catholic-Protestant-Jewish).
An Assessment on the American Future:
The changing portrait and image of America will likely create a renewed debate around the national character of this nation. How ought the Jewish community to weigh in on such a conversation?
- The demographic character of America is being recreated.
- The political culture of this society is experiencing new and significant stresses and threats.
- The American economic story is transitioning in significant and challenging ways.
- The role and place of religion in the United States is undergoing profound change.
What do these trends mean for the Jewish community? When societies experience economic disruptions, political challenges, and social transformation, there is the possibility that the quality of relationships among different constituencies will be impacted. As the nation evolves, what will be the state of intergroup relations in this country? Are we likely to see heightened levels of racism and anti-Semitism should some of these emergent issues ferment tensions within this nation?
While some specific examples have been introduced above, there are significant changes ahead in other arenas of this nation’s economy, culture and politics that are also likely to impact our society. As the United States moves through these significant transitions, preparing citizens to manage and embrace these changes becomes the responsibility of its political officials, its educational and civic elites, and its organizational leaders. Jewish communal and religious leadership will need to play a role as well in helping its constituencies deal with the implications of these structural and operational adjustments.
Steven Windmueller is the Rabbi Alfred Gottschalk Emeritus Professor of Jewish Communal Service at the Jack H. Skirball Campus of HUC-JIR, Los Angeles. Dr. Windmueller’s writings can be found on his website, www.thewindreport.com