The Great Re-Evaluation
How COVID accelerated a growing divide between those who are committed to and those who are disengaged from work, college, and religion
Daniel A. Cox and others report,
The COVID-19 pandemic precipitated an overall decline in religious attendance, although religious identity remained mostly stable.
The number of Americans who never attend religious services jumped over the past two years; roughly one in three Americans now report that they never attend religious services.
Young adults report the greatest change in religious attendance of any age group.
…Young people, those who are single, and self-identified liberals ceased attending religious services at all at much higher rates than other Americans did. Even before the pandemic, these groups were experiencing the most dramatic declines in religious membership, practice, and identity. At least in terms of religious attendance, the pandemic appears to have pushed out those who had maintined the weakest commitments to regular attendance.
…the post-pandemic religious decline may portend increasing religious polarization, with more Americans either very religiously active or completely inactive
Although our synagogue typifies this trend, I believe that it applies to much more than just attendance of religious services. Consider the widespread complaints by college professors about the drop in engagement among students, or the reports of increases in chronic absenteeism in high schools. Consider the conflicts that have arisen over work-from-home, in which top executives want people back in the office but workers do not wish to return. Consider that many people are opting for less demanding jobs or for no jobs at all, in what has been dubbed “The Great Resignation.”
I think that the pandemic accelerated people’s re-evaluations of many of their commitments. We came out of it more strongly committed to activities we value highly, including passionate interests and family relationships. But we became less committed to jobs and classes that have only instrumental value to us. Young people were affected the most.
An Example: Dancing
Let me start with an idiosyncratic example, which is my hobby of Israeli dancing. This used to revolve around the weekly dance session, where dancers attend in person and are taught new dances by the session leader.
With the pandemic, sessions were all canceled, but some of us kept up dancing on Zoom. And choreographers continued to come up with new dances. Teaching videos for these, as well as older dances, continued to appear on YouTube.
Obviously, you have to be pretty committed to want to dance in a space in your own home while watching a computer. But it turns out that there were avid dancers, including people living in places where they never had access to live sessions. They joined in the Zoom sessions and some of them acquired a large repertoire of dances. On Zoom, we encountered dancers from throughout Europe and Latin America, as well as small towns in the United States.
When people put the pandemic behind them, most live sessions that resumed fell below their pre-pandemic levels of attendance. People who had been casual in their commitment to dancing before now decided that this was no longer a priority. Having not kept up with the Zoom sessions during the pandemic, they felt intimidated by the new and challenging dances that autodidacts had mastered.
On the other hand, the autodidacts and other dancers who had kept up were now eager for a more challenging repertoire. Some even continued to study dances on YouTube and to attend sessions on Zoom.
While regular weekly live sessions lost attendance, “dance camps,” where dancers gather for a long weekend with participants from near and far, increased in popularity. We get to meet the dancers that we first encountered on Zoom, and we get to do more of the challenging dances.
Five years ago, I pointed out that in the age of the internet, traditional special-interest hobbies were becoming Narrower, Deeper, Older. Although in the case of Israeli dancing many of the autodidacts happen to be young, I think that my earlier analysis still holds. The typical hobby or interest is going to lose its less-committed participants, leaving behind a more intense group.
New attitudes toward college
My experience with dancing inspired me in my network-based education white paper to suggest that periodic conferences or retreats could substitute for campus-based higher education.
Why are college students increasingly skipping classes and failing to turn in assignments? I suspect that some students are like the casual dancers who have dropped out of weekly dance sessions. These students never were passionate about classroom learning in the first place, and now enough of them have disengaged that they feel secure in numbers that they will not be penalized for failing to abide by traditional requirements. They may or may not turn out to be right about this. Note that college enrollment also is down, which (a) indicates that young people are reconsidering their willingness to attend college and (b) puts economic pressure on colleges to put up with less effort on the part of students.
I am pretty sure that some students enjoy learning, and they continue to remain engaged. But some of these might prefer even more challenging courses, and they may be willing to leave behind the students who are there for the athletics and the parties.
The social norm of college attendance is very powerful and remains well entrenched. But it is anachronistic in many ways. The educational model has become misaligned with technology. Chalk-and-talk can be replaced by YouTube, and small seminars might be conducted on line using conferencing software.
The educational model also has become misaligned with the economy. The costs of attending college have soared, while the college “wage premium” has remained flat or even edged down in recent years.
Because of these misalignments, college student engagement has not snapped back to pre-pandemic levels. I doubt that colleges will be able to come up with a cure for the disengagement of less-committed students. The interesting question is whether they will also lose the most committed students, who are eager to soak up knowledge and are being held back by anachronistic teaching practices.
Bosses and workers divide
I think that what we are seeing in the workplace is an emerging divide between bosses and workers. Bosses are intrinsically very committed to their firms. They cannot understand workers who are more focused on friends, family, and recreation.
Of course, some workers remain engaged and excited by their jobs. They will be on track to get raises, bonuses, and promotions. But how will firms manage these workers alongside the employees who are less committed? Elon Musk aside, bosses will probably not find it practical to jettison workers who want to put only modest effort into their jobs.
Will we see companies emerge with explicitly two-track systems? Perhaps the committed workers will be kept on staff, while contractors will be employed to handle jobs that require less long-term engagement with the firm.
To sum up, people have been in the process of re-evaluating how they engage with work, religion, and education in the era of internet communication. The pandemic accelerated this process. I think that the disengagement of partially-committed individuals is not going to be reversed, and in fact may increase more going forward. The challenge for bosses, educational leaders, and religious leaders will be to satisfy the committed participants and come to terms with the less engaged.
I would like to thank Jerry Muller spotlighting this topic during a conversation.
I think it's worth disaggregating the activities of individuals, rather than just dividing folks into devoted/engaged vs not.
I may be biased by my personality, but I've always been a procrastinator. I'm an intellectual - I loved college and was very engaged in learning and my classes; today I work a challenging intellectual job and for a hobby read and comment on Substack essays.
Even so, I never turned in anything or started studying for an exam until the very last minute. To this day, I still routinely have to do all-nighters to hit deadlines because I procrastinate. And, if there's an acceptable way to avoid doing it/procrastinate longer - baby, you get I'm finding it and exploiting it.
I don't know why I'm like this. But I was not alone - lots of people (if felt like almost everyone at times) just don't do the grind part of work until they have to, even if they will get a lot from it and enjoy it.
If they'd had the permissive, forgiving/manipulable culture they have today when I was in school, or if I was in a less forgiving profession, I am sure I'd be on the "turning in assignments late/not doing tests" column of the ledger, even as I loved being in college and learning.
"We came out of it more strongly committed to activities we value highly, including passionate interests and family relationships."
Did we actually do this, or did we just withdraw from everything. I would hesitant to put too much emphasis on how, for example, the participants in online-dancing are more numerous than the previous in-person participants. Each of those new on-line participants could be substituting on-line participation for some other in-person activity they used to do pre-pandemic.