Crucially, and blessedly, Millennials are becoming masons
Those under thirty constitute at present only two per cent of British masons. This may seem negligible – apart from when you note they are also precisely the one age group in masonry whose numbers are growing.
Membership for people under thirty is currently on the uptick by 7.65 per cent. Contrast this with a decrease in all other age groups – just over ten per cent for people in their 40s, by seven per cent for people in their 50s, and just under ten per cent for people in their 60s.
This is a significant reprieve from a death-knell for us all. In the United Kingdom, a postwar peak pushed our numbers to over half-a-million masons.
In recent years, we are not quite half that – 228,000 in 2011, 214,000 in 2013.
And this is not the case for English Freemasonry alone. Trends have been broadly parallel across the Atlantic, where 1959 saw a height of American masonic membership at four million, buoyed by a generation of stalwart joiners home from war, then hitting a trough at half that shortly after 2000.
If we would know what the future of Freemasonry holds, we might do worse than look to Millennial masonry. What do masons in their twenties and early thirties say about what they want from their masonic experience? What in masonry do they tell us they would like to change?
I've spoken to a sample set of masons in their late twenties and early thirties, putting these two questions to them. Amongst them, they run the gamut from a Fellowcraft, newly in his first office as Inner Guard, through to two current Masters, and three past Masters, one of whom is now a lodge Secretary. They are joining masonry in some numbers – what do they, in turn, wish masonry to look like?
John works in IT and is in his young thirties. An active London Past Master, he has earned three silver matchboxes for word-perfect ceremonies, from the Emulation Lodge of Improvement, and was just invested as a Metropolitan Grand Steward. He replies with four ways in which he would like masonry to change:
1. Later starting times. A 4pm starting time is just too early for most salaried workers. Leave days are precious, and I don't like booking days off or half-days off for masonry unless it's strictly necessary.
2. Preserve the ritual. It's at the core of what we do. It's a little hard to do this while starting later, but it is possible. I don't go to meetings to listen to minutes or Charity Steward's reports (sorry, Bro Charity Steward – try email next time).
3. Cheaper meals. This is a controversial one, as many affluent young gentlemen are looking for some really fine dining. I, alas, have found myself skipping such meals as I find it difficult to justify with our darling little financial constraint crawling around.
4. Taking it seriously. It's fine to have a laugh, but if your lodge or unit does not essentially take what they're doing seriously, I'd rather be somewhere else.
Niall, 27, works as an investment manager, and is secretary of a London lodge, where he is also a Past Master. He says, 'One thing that keeps popping up is the dress code and meeting times. I find that interesting at least.'
Richard, 33, is a senior manager at a professional services firm. He joined Freemasonry in September, is now a Fellowcraft, and has just taken his first office as Inner Guard. He thoughtfully observes:
'I think one of the challenges with Millennials is that they may see masonry like they see Young Farmers or Conservative Future. It is for a certain type of wealthy, privately educated nerd. There are plenty of geeks out there that would enjoy Freemasonry, but have a worldview opposite or at least different to Young Farmers or Conservative Future. Then there are the festive boards – socialising with people outside of your age group is often challenging for younger people. That's not to mention the expense of dining.
'For me, I think Freemasonry offers a journey of personal discovery, something I can't find in politics or religion alone. I told my two closest friends and their responses were: 1) isn't it a bit weird all that dressing up? And 2) I guess it will be good for your career as masonry is about men getting up the greasy pole. I then had to explain brotherhood, charity, etc.
Danny, in his thirties, is a Leicestershire mason, works as a consultant, and is heavily involved with the Universities' Scheme. He calls for more of Project Streamline (late starts, cut out the unnecessary bits etc.) whilst maintaining the tenets of the Craft.
'Expanding the Universities' Scheme and light blue clubs across the country. Stronger mentorship schemes to look after and retain members. Greater openness and awareness of the public, including in the Tercentenary celebrations. Modernisation in terms of the use of electronic communication to keep lodge members up-to-date at lodge, Provincial and UGLE level. Wider awareness of what's going on outside your own lodge. And an advance in the use of social media.'
Richie, in his thirties, is a local government officer. He is a recent past master of a university scheme lodge, Honor and Generosity Lodge No.165. He wants to see more of the Universities' Scheme, multiple ceremonies, multiple candidates and get them quickly on the ladder.
Tim, 34, is a consultant in Oxford, where he finished a doctorate five years ago. He is currently master of the Apollo University Lodge No.357.
'The key with Freemasonry for younger people is to think of it as a charitable and social personal development course. To consider the three relationships it tries to encourage us to think about our relationship with our Creator, between each other, and with ourselves.'
To sum up, the masons interviewed were not in it for dining. They each, without prompting, emphasised ritual, personal and moral development, and charity.
They asked for a masonry which is adapted to working practices, as in the case of John and Niall; and one which responds to desires for individual charitable entrepreneurship.
The young masons which whom we've spoken display many of the most striking characteristics of Millennials – roughly those born from 1982 onwards.
This generation is so named – first, by historians William Strauss and Neil Howe in the United States – to note a demographic bump from roughly 1980 to 1990, as Baby Boomers born after the Second World War themselves produced children. And the name captures the fact that they would reach maturity from the year 2000 onward, in this brave millennium.
If they are joining masonry, it is not as yet another thread within a fabric of the establishment, and it is not – in striking difference to the hardy serial 'joiners' who returned from the Somme and Normandy to seek communal experiences at home after their demobilisation – because they very much like joining things.
In fact, it likely is rather the opposite. According to the British Social Attitudes survey, the Millennial generation is less likely than those that which before to consider themselves part of a particular religious denomination, less likely to join a political party or a trade union, and less likely to have an especially high view of the forces. Though interest in current affairs is quite strong (at two-thirds, when asked by the Hansard Society in a 2013 study of political engagement), party politics leaves Millennials cold (with one-third confessing any interest there whatsoever).
They are fiercely individualistic. Polling by YouGov shows them more likely than their elders to consider confronting social problems a responsibility of individuals, instead of the government. British Millennials especially, compared with their European neighbours of the same generation, are relaxed about social issues – same sex marriage, for one, or consumption of alcohol, tobacco, or cannabis, according to a Eurobarometer study.
They also are much more likely to have set up their own business than counterparts in any other European country. Part of this is to do with Britain – a country with high university attendance, which correlates with social liberalism, with a flexible and competitive labour market, tending towards competitiveness and individualism, and whose citizens (according to the Economist) 'chart their lives on social media with more zeal than most'.
'Detached from institutions and networked with friends,' is how the Pew Research Center describes Millennials in a study from March 2014. The millennial generation's world is digital, with 41% admitting they would rather communicate electronically than in person or by telephone. This generation's affinity with the digital world, as digital natives, seeps into what they seek from organisations – flexibility, varied and interesting experiences, regular feedback, an opportunity to keep learning.
Uncomfortable with rigid organisational structures, their paradigmatic employer is Google or Apple, or still better, the tech start-up. They value mentors from older generations, but there are hints of possible generational conflict afoot – 38% say that in the workplace, older senior management do not relate to them, 34% say their personal drive intimidates older generations, and half found their managers did not always understand they ways they used technology.
A Price Waterhouse Cooper report on Millennials at work says the global economic crisis was their formative coming-of-age experience, making them scrappy, deeply afraid of unemployment (72 per cent feeling they had made some sort of trade-off to get into work), but with personal learning and development still the most important thing they seek from employers – flexible working hours comes second, with cash bonuses in a surprising third place.
They do not especially like to join institutions, but they are joining this one. Why? Doubtless, the deeply personal engagement with moral development encouraged by the Craft – that the ritual is there, supremely evocative, but how you interpret and engage with it is utterly up to you – appeals to Millennials with a disillusion towards authoritative institutions. As does the exclusion from the masonic space of religion and politics, both discredited discourses for Millennials.
As Richard noted above, they are hardly joining Freemasonry because, having already joined Young Conservatives and Young Farmers, they wish for more of the same – going perhaps back marvelously full-circle to the organisation's Enlightenment-era origins, motivated by tolerance, free-thinking, and scepticism.
Masonry's countercultural nature in 2016 may even appeal. Conspiratorial theories hold less traction amongst Millennials, equally alongside all other received viewpoints.
Future of Freemasonry
Millennial masonry so far has thrown up its own institutions. The Connaught Club, founded in 2007 for those London-area Freemasons under 35, is one – for members of lodges which span the mix of ages, it is a novel affiliation which is cross-lodge and generational. The Universities' Scheme is another, set up in 2005, with a remit to 'establish and enhance arrangements and opportunities for undergraduates and other university members to enjoy Freemasonry.'
Masonry in universities has its own flavour – multiple-candidate ceremonies, and in many cases more than one degree worked in an evening, are the norm, as is a speedy progression into office – in both cases, in order to see new masons through as much of their masonic journey as possible within the context of a short university time.
Though our numbers are gratefully stabilising, the contraction of membership from the postwar boom will mean there is a slight excess of units, with many of the twentieth-century lodges and chapters being permitted to return warrants and charters, to permit a slightly smaller number of healthy units rather than a much larger number of units with smatterings of seven or eight members. Interestingly, says Mike Baker, the UGLE Director of Communications in an interview for this paper, compared with the state of the Craft at the consecration of the current Freemasons' Hall in Great Queen Street, the numbers now and then 'are not dramatically different, but the number of lodges is incredibly numerous now'.
Another trend is the repurposing of other dying units – especially the 19th century lodges that are our Victorian family silver, holders of Hallstone Jewels and slightly longer pasts. Often, this is into class lodges uniting people around particular shared interests. I owe a personal confession that in the past year I have contributed to precisely such mischief, in refounding a dying Hallstone lodge as a London book group lodge called Tivoli Libris Lodge No.2150, whose festive boards are all open to guests (including non-members and women) and which discuss a different book each occasion over pudding and port. The openness, we have found, demystifies us a bit, shows masonry off as something endearingly erudite, quirky, and welcoming, and we have had initiates from out of the guests of every meeting so far.
In a similar vein, June saw the consecration of a football lodge in Hampshire and Isle of White – which already had consecrated a cycling lodge, and a rugby lodge with the sturdy name Rugby Bastion. West Kent is making moves to form a cycling lodge as well.
Another convenient point of reference might be the Future of Freemasonry report, which UGLE commissioned in 2012. The document was largely a stock-taking exercise with the tercentenary of the UGLE – and modern masonry – beginning to lumber into view next year, in 2017. On page 29, the report – by the independent Social Issues Research Centre in Oxford – concludes 'even at the cutting edge of twenty-first century communication technologies, our need for symbolic exchanges that reinforce social bonds remain as evident as ever.'
It goes on to observe, similarly to the Millennials above, 'perhaps surprisingly, it was the younger masons who put the greatest emphasis on the rituals, seeing them as a distinct pull of Freemasonry from the beginning', all 'as the more formal rituals of British life decay'. This appeals strongly to younger members, in the way it combines enjoyable, entertaining aspects with more serious ones involving the 'transmission of moral codes' by reflection on the dramaturgical experiences and antique phrases.
There is an excellent quote there, from a mason holding a senior office in a university lodge, who says: 'The ritual is a strange, seductive thing. As an outsider you would wonder at this. As an intelligent man you would say, "This is extraordinary." And yet I see these [undergraduates] come into masonry and they love it.
'And they compete with each other in a sort of serious game. They throw in stray words in the ritual to catch each other out.'
What does this mean for their masonry? Cheery things, I think. The Craft is acquiring, quickly and in some numbers, a generation who show no signs of caring especially for rank, whose predilection to see masonry as a dining club (though admittedly, the best dining club) is weak, guided by a sense of moral seriousness and dissatisfaction with the answers, for the grand questions, on offer either from organised religion or political parties – questions to which their strong disposition is to answer themselves, educated, and charitably entrepreneurial.
More speculatively, others have raised the question whether Millennial masonry may produce a different and closer working relationship between UGLE and the two women's grand lodges.
For a more national perspective, I went to greater Manchester recently and shared much of this with a Provincial conference which included both younger and older masons, as well as the Provincial Grand Master. One older mason went so far as to suggest that if younger masons were less drawn by dining, perhaps masonic centres should consider converting some of their dining rooms to gyms, with free access to masons. Retaining young members who joined through the Universities' Scheme appeared as a key challenge, too – relations with London 'receiver' lodges are well established for the older university-linked lodges in the South East, but less so for, say, Northern graduates moving to the capital.
In any case, and in nearly all respects, the inclination of Millennials will be to nudge us back to where we began – a less top-heavy institution, a haven of tolerance in a partisan and angry world. And a Craft whose charitable efforts share a bit more in common with the entrepreneurial start-up culture of the tech sector, and show a bit less of what Mike Baker calls 'masonic porn', what one Millennial quoted above called 'grip'n grin' – old men, holding a very large cheque.
Pádraig Belton is a journalist, and secretary of London's book group lodge, Tivoli Libris Lodge No. 2150. Its book dinners are very much open to everyone, and it raises pennies for inner London, British, and overseas literacy charities.