In February 2020 I wrote an article with the same title as this one; this post is an update on that data, with current data as of the full year of 2020 for US Masonic membership. You can find the original post here.
In that original article we covered hypothesized reasons why demographics are changing. At the time of that writing (early 2020) it was expected the decline would continue, the data is now in (and backfilled with more historical context). The data comes from the MSANA and the US Census
Let’s zoom in on only the last 7 years and take a look at what the effect of the first year of the pandemic was. You’ll see that the trend is broadly similar, but that in 2020 the slope of the line becomes more negative.
Over the course of the last 5 years (2016-2020) the average decline in membership for GLs has been 19.71%, which corresponds with 1,118,867 masons in 2016, and a total of 898,356 at the end of 2020. The top 3 performing states all still declined in membership over this 5 year period; they were Hawaii (-5%), the District of Columbia (-6.56%), and North Dakota (-9.52%). The bottom 3 states in terms of membership were Colorado (-27%), Kentucky (-26%) and Washington (-26%). As seen in the table, these changes were not regionally based; that is, different states performed markedly differently, but regions did not. This makes sense as the governance model for Freemasonry is aligned at the state level.
Causes of Steeper Decline
The causes are not yet fully established. The most tempting speculation is about the COVID pandemic; as Freemasons skew older and into the risk group that suffered the largest number of deaths, this was almost certainly a contributing factor. Most people who are a member of a lodge know a fellow Freemason who has passed from COVID, and many of us quite a few. A number of Masonic Luminaries have passed as a direct result of COVID.
But the COVID19 Pandemic is not likely the main reason. Setting aside the pandemic, the “age pyramid” of Freemasonry skews towards older age. Unfortunately, high quality data on age distribution is not available, but most members would agree that the 55+ age cohort is the largest portion of membership (n.b. if you have a data-oriented rebuttal to this I would love if it you’d comment). According to the Census Bureau, a wider trend is that due to the aging of America, overall American death rates are going up. In short, attrition is accelerating due to a demographic pyramid that’s inverted. With population projections like these, continued decline is extremely likely as a simple consequence of demographics.
How Common of an Experience is Freemasonry?
A way to look at this is to compare the total number of Freemasons to the overall population of the United States, as shown in the first graphic at the top. Over the entire span of available data, Freemasons have averaged between one quarter of one percent, and about 3% of the US population. The “high water mark” in terms of percentage representation was in 1928, where there were 3.2 million Freemasons in a population of 106 million US citizens; 3.11%. This point makes perfect sense because it is also near the peak of the Golden Age of Fraternalism. The lowest mark unsurprisingly has come after substantial population growth paired with decline in membership. In 2020, about 898 thousand Masons were present in a US population of 331 million, or 0.27%.
To place this percentage in the context of religious groups; Jewish, Muslim, Buddhist, and Hindu identifying people in the United States are about 1% of the population each.
Causes & Actions
This post today is focused just on data & present standing, not on a diagnosis or recommendations. It’s not my purpose to project doom (I don’t believe that will occur) or offer suggestions, just to publish the facts. However most people will wonder what is to be done about this. That could be its own book worth of material, but on this blog before, we’ve covered two different perspectives which might be worth taking into account.
The first is the the Scottish Rite NMJ’s Path Forward, which is probably the best Masonic analysis and breakdown of the current situation I’ve read. The Rite did a fairly comprehensive survey of the membership and wrote up the results. They’re nuanced and insightful.
The second is the article The Decline of Fraternal Ritualism, which tells the story of the cultural, social, and economic factors which ended the Golden Age of Fraternalism. History often moves in waves; you can see these membership waves in the data at the top. Seeking to understand how a pattern formed in the past is important to understanding how the same pattern might express itself today.
The final resource I’d recommend for those who want to dive deeper is the Laudable Pursuit: a 21st Century Response to Dwight Smith, by the Knights of the North.