Families, Faith and Values Across Generations: A Conversation with Vern Bengtson

Interview by Alison Biggar

Vern Bengtson has spent a good portion of his career questioning the prevailing wisdom on family dynamics and their effect on a person’s psychology, and how people do or do not pass along religious beliefs, ethics and values. His findings from what has become an almost 40-year-long longitudinal study of 350 families run counter to many cultural assumptions, debunking popular myths such as the Generation Gap and America’s impending godlessness. Bengston’s Longitudinal Study of Generations has received continual National Institutes of Health funding over eight waves of data collection.

A faculty research associate with the USC School of Social Work’s Edward R. Roybal Institute on Aging, Bengtson was AARP/University Chair in Gerontology at USC and a past president of the Gerontological Society of America. Aging Today spoke with him in January about his study and his findings.

Aging Today: Please explain your study.

Vern Bengtson: The Longitudinal Study of Generations began in 1970 as a study of family dynamics and their relationship to mental health. 

It was during the time of the Generation Gap, protests, civil rights [upheaval], student revolts—there were many indications that radically different perspectives existed between young adults and their parents, and that these conflicts were related to mental health issues such as anxiety and depression, for both generations. But our early analysis revealed there was not that great a gap in values, although there were some gaps in attitudes.

AT: What did you find out about kids’ relationships to their grandparents?

VB: We were interested in the degree to which family relationships in early life affect the degree to which older parents are able to rely upon support from their kids and grandkids as they age, at a time when it was largely assumed that American elders were being abandoned. That, too, turned out to be a stereotype. We found evidence of lots of support and assistance, extending three or four generations.

Then, in 2000, some graduate students and I were looking at the data on grandparents and grandkids. We were impressed with the similarities and the support we were finding across the generations. There was a high degree of mutual support that was never mentioned in the mass media or popular culture. This was at a time in the 1990s when there was much concern about the family being in a precarious position—many preachers and politicians were talking about the “decline of the American family.”

AT: And how did your study segue into a study on transmitting religious and ethical values?

VB: Time Magazine ran a story in the 1990s, “The American Family: An Endangered Species.” We were finding quite the contrary in our study; multiple generation connections were quite strong. Of the nine domains [in which] we compared grandparents and young adult grandchildren, [about] things like attitudes toward politics, women’s issues and religions, of all the nine domains, religion had the strongest similarity of all attitudinal and generational variables we examined. We had no idea religion would be what was most likely to be transmitted across generations.

AT: And how did your book Families and Faith: How Religion Is Passed Down Across Generations [with Norella M. Putney and Susan Harris; New York: Oxford University Press, 2013] evolve out of the study?

VB: In 2004, the Templeton Foundation gave us the support to begin research that led to this book. Our study involved looking at data from more than 350 three-generation families—grandparents, parents, grandchildren—who we surveyed from 1970 to 2005, across 35 years. Over time, we had also picked up the great grandchildren from the same 350 families. So at the end we had 1,400 respondents, including the new great grandchildren, the Millennials.

In addition to the survey data, we identified 25 families out of the 350, and interviewed as many as we could in four generations. We did 157 in-depth interviews, which informs most of the book. 

AT: What surprised you most about the study?

VB: There were five major surprises from the study.

The first surprise involved the degree of intergenerational similarity in religion and spirituality in 2005. There had been much in the press recently about dysfunctional families and about how youth aren’t listening to parents, or how youth are troubled. This mindset suggests that the influence of parents has declined and [that parents] are not significant. Also, about how we live in a tech age in which young people are thumbing their way through life on cellphones, so the influence of peers and the media seems much more significant than that of parents. So I was surprised to find that parents are so important—that parents’ values predicted youths’ values to such a high extent.

Second, when our research team looked back 35 years to see how much difference there was between parental values today and what was occurring in 1960s, we found very little change. Despite the many changes in American culture since 1960—social, political, religious, technological—there was little difference in the magnitude of parents’ influence on young adults’ religious orientations.

Third, I was surprised by how strong grandparents’ influence appeared to be; they are much more influential than is often recognized.

Fourth, when we looked at factors that might predict or account for why some families are more successful in transmitting religion and values than others, we found that the most important characteristic was the quality of the relationship, not whether the parent was a good role model, or not whether the parent [said] prayers in the evening, but rather whether the parent was perceived as being warm, affirming and supportive. Moreover, it was the father, not the mother, who was instrumental in the quality-of-relationship component.

Finally, we were surprised by how intentional the non-religious parents and grandparents were in passing on and teaching values to their kids. Secular humanists, agnostics and atheists ended up being just as involved in the spiritual and ethical lives of their kids as were religious parents. They did a lot to pass on the Golden Rule and values.

AT: Is there a trend of people in general becoming less formally religious?

VB: There is a general trend in the U.S., and especially in Europe, of fewer each year choosing to join churches, and people attending church less frequently. Moreover, there’s a general tendency for people to say they are spiritual, not religious. The nationwide Pew polls of several years ago made headlines by reporting that one-third of respondents age 18 to 35 said that they had no religious affiliation. The headline that resulted was that America’s youth are becoming nonreligious. But that’s not correct. It doesn’t mean you’re not religious just because you don’t belong to a church.

AT: You have said you expect a resurgence of faith as baby boomers retire. Is it tied to aging, or another reason?

VB: It’s too early to tell if it’s happening. We do see a trend for people to become more interested or more engaged in spiritual and religious things in the later years of life. 

AT: And who comes back to the church in later life? 

VB: We haven’t analyzed to see which type of faith tradition people take up in retirement, whether it’s the same one they grew up with or a new one. Yet we are seeing that many older people who have been engaged in non-denominational churches are coming back to the mainline Protestant denominational churches in their retirement. As one person put it to me, ‘I feel like I am returning home.’

Photo credit: George Welik

Editor’s Note: This article appears in the March/April 2015 issue of Aging Today, ASA’s bi-monthly newspaper covering issues in aging research, practice and policy. ASA members receive Aging Today as a member benefit; non-members may purchase subscriptions at our online store or Join ASA.