AA Membership: Growth or Decline?
By Joe C.
AA’s General Service Conference takes its own inventory, a process that has spanned several years. How well do we AAs meet our responsibility to reach out our hand, anytime, anywhere? Data helps answer these questions and begs the question, “What can we do to alter or improve?”
Let’s look at AA membership data. Each year our fellowship estimates our total number of members and groups. AA’s membership exceeded two million members for the first time in 1990 and peaked at 2.2 million in 2001. We’ve never relived that past glory. January of 2015, we counted 5% fewer members in our ranks. Outside USA/Canada membership fell of 13%. Does a smaller 2015 number tell us we’re doing something wrong? Or, is AA caught up in social trends among our community at large? For instance, how many people are today part of a bowling league or Kiwanis or Jaycees compared to their peak membership numbers in the past? How does AA’s current state of member engagement compare to society as a whole?
This just in: AA’s 2014 Membership Survey
Every three years our membership survey probes for details about our membership. Here’s a sample of the various findings from our triennial surveys through the years:
In 1996, 60% of members received medical/mental/spiritual help before we came to AA. Of our members under 30 years of age, 40% were female.
In 1989, 42% of us had a drug addiction (other than booze) and 70% of our doctors knew we were in AA.
In 1983, 35 to 40% of meeting attendees had less than a year of sobriety; today it’s 27%. The average length of sobriety in 1983 was 45 months compared to 10 years sober today. Our average age was 41 then and now it is 50 years of age.
All of the above are interesting snap-shot facts that we could talk about over coffee. Let’s isolate the last one: In 1983 our average age was 41 and today it’s 50. How does our average compare to average Americans – who make up over half of AA members? In 1983 the average Yank was 30.9 years old and AAs were 10 years older. So AA members were 32% older in 1983 than the national average age (30.9 x 1.32 = 41). And in 2014, the average American was older: 37.7 years of age. AAs were 12.3 years older than that: 50 years old. That happens to be the same 32% older than the average 1983 American, according to Statista.
So are AA members getting older? Yes; just as is the rest of the population. Is there a case to be made that we are simply keeping pace with an aging population? Americans and AA members have maintained the same pace over the last 31 years (AAs being 32% older that the average American in both 1983 and 2014). So it looks like we’re getting older, but so is everyone.
If you are looking for an “age” issue, maybe there is cause for concern in our teenage members. In 2007 our triennial survey showed under 20s at 2.3% of our population. Teen members were 2% in 2011 and dropped sharply to 1% in 2014. Let’s say for simple math that AA’s population was 2 million people in all three time periods. That means we had 46,000 AA teenagers in 2007, 40,000 in 2011 and 20,000 in 2014. Going way back to the 1980s, 15 to 19 years-olds were 4.6% of the American population and teens have since dropped as a percentage of total population this century as the average age increases. There has been stability in the latest decade. Teens in North America (age 15 – 19) have been pretty steady from 2005 (3.6% of Americans) to 2015 (3.2% of Americans). So in a period where the USA has seen a very slight decline in the youth, we have seen a sharp decline in AA youth. AA’s Public Information has put a reasonable amount of energy into youth outreach in terms of videos, posters and literature. In the late 1990s, it was anticipated that launching our website, aa.org, would hail a new era of increased membership – especially the younger members.
That prediction turned out to be just another Y2K prediction like Stanley Kubrick’s life on the moon and regular flights to Jupiter via Pan-Am Air (2001: A Space Odyssey, 1968) or Roger Smith of General Motors 1986 prediction that “By the turn of the century we will live in a paperless society.” It’s 2015 and I’m still stuck here on Earth and my desk is still stacked with paper.
What is to be made of the 50% drop in AA youth? Has there been migration to NA where dually addicted members need never hear, “outside issue” if they identify as an addict? How has the emergence of the 2007 fellowship, Teen Addiction Anonymous, impacted current and potential AA members? How many of the youth have already reclined into happy, joyous and free on-line recovery, thus not being around for roll-call by home-group secretaries? These millennials will be the early adapters to online AA life. Later, I’ll offer some examples of 12-Step members who are spending more time engaging the recovery community online than in church basements.
Female members in the 2014 survey are now 38% of AA. This is the closest to a 50-50 we have ever seen. Statistics will tell you what people do but torture stats all you like and they still won’t reveal why people do what they do. Are there more women drinking and more female alcoholics or is AA now more gender-neutral?
Ethnic diversity in AA is bucking the trend in the USA. Multi-culturalism grows outside AA meeting doors but inside, we are trending in a more exclusive direction. In 2007, 87% of AA members were white, in 2011 it was 87% and now 89% of AA is Caucasian. According to Pew Research Group (Next America), America has transformed from 85% white in 1960 to 64% in 2010 and a projected 60% for 2020.
Alcoholism is not thought to be a Caucasian-specific problem. According to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration’s (SAMHSA’s) 2008 Report on who is being treated for addiction, 60% of people being treated for alcoholism (and other substance use disorders) are Caucasian (21% African American and 19% other).
Is there something in AA rituals and culture that makes a certain demographic feel comfortable in the rooms and another demographic feel like they don’t belong? According to people who work in human-rights/human-resources, yes there is.
The problem is defined at USLegal.com as follows: “Systemic discrimination refers to patterns of behavior, policies or practices that are part of the structures of an organization, and which create or perpetuate disadvantage for racialized persons.” Not far from where Toronto Intergroup meets each month, the Ontario Human Rights Commission (OHRC website) states that, “The Commission is very concerned about systemic discrimination. Assessing and tackling systemic discrimination can be complex. Nevertheless, the Commission expects organizations to be aware that their ‘normal way of doing things’ may be having a negative impact on (minorities).” (Fact Sheet)
Except in extreme cases, systemic discrimination is unintentional. AA has a history of making room for women, African Americans and Gay and Lesbian groups. In many cases AA was closer to the front than the back of cultural shifts to equality. But the numerical data suggests that we are overlooking something.
Here’s a thought. I collected all this triennial survey information from years gone by from my visit to GSO, earlier this year. What do I see as I enter AA archives office? Pictures of people that matter to AA adorn the walls – white people. If a visage of Bill Wilson and Bob Smith – our first members – is important, then let’s celebrate them. However, shouldn’t our first African American lesbian member be just as celebrated? This isn’t about re-writing our history, it’s how we promulgate privilege and prejudice in our fellowship’s narrative.
Stewardship: Preparing AA for 2050 or recreating 1950?
What does it say at an AA conference where members speak from a stage that has no wheelchair ramp, or no ASL (American Sign Language) interpreter for the deaf? This is another form of systemic discrimination. In terms of stairs and no ramp for the stage, “But we didn’t have a disabled speaker on the panel,” might be the plea from a defensive organizer. Sure, but what’s the message to the wheelchair or walker aided member in the audience? Could we blame them if they heard, “AA doesn’t respect your dignity and independence”?
In this scenario, the stage is the medium and the medium projects a message. If literature, rituals and customs promulgate two classes – one of privilege and one of prejudice – then the message of our actions speaks louder than the message of our intention.
Yes, these are things that GSO ought to exercise “the courage to change the things we can.” But it’s just as true at our home group, district and area.
Mutual-aid, Bowling Leagues and Trends in Social Capital
Now what about AA’s population as a whole? By our own records AA membership is down 97,792 (5%) in January 2015 compared to a year ago. At times, I have been quick to point to what we AAs are doing and how and why our actions are stagnating our popularity. But is that true? To what extent are our numbers reflective of a culture moving away from this kind of community engagement? Well, as it turns out, at the turn of the century we were given a compass to help track where we are and what’s going on around us.
Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community was a 2000 landmark book by Robert David Putnam, political scientist / professor of Public Policy / Political Science at Harvard.
The book looks at declining community and civic engagement in the USA. In post WW II USA, increases in middle class spare time and money had people getting out of the home in different ways.
Formed in 1895, The Bowling Congress of America (BCA) enjoyed a 400% membership surge in the early 40s (at the same time AA was growing). This didn’t last forever. BCA membership plateaued in 1964 and lost 72% of members by 1997. At BCA’s peak, they attracted 83 out of every 1,000 males over 20 years-of-age. This number fell to 20/1,000 (males over the age of 20) before the end of the century.
Similar climbs in membership, plateaus and sharp drops can be found in Jaycees, Kiwanis, Lions, Masons and Shiners. Membership in professional organizations has lost its glitter, too. The American Medical Association represented over 70% of all doctors and now only 40% of eligible members join. The same trend is found for nurses, engineers and other professional organizations.
Over the Bowling Alone timespan, AA membership enjoyed double or triple digit growth every decade from the 1940s until 1990 when we first eclipsed two-million worldwide members.
Putnam looks at growing apathy towards community and civic engagement, not as an internet phenomena but a trend that pre-dated small-screen life. In-home entertainment ramped up TV screen sizes. VCRs and 150 channels offered more reasons to stay home and watch something.
People who say that TV is their ‘primary form of entertainment’ volunteer and work on community projects less often, attend fewer dinner parties and fewer club meeting, spend less time visiting friends or entertain at home less, picnic less, are less interested in politics, give blood less often, write friends less regularly, make fewer long-distance phone calls, send fewer greeting cards and less e-mails … TV dependence is associated not merely with less involvement in community life, but with less social communication in all its forms—written, oral, or electronic. (Bowling Alone, p. 231)
It isn’t hard to see how AA could be impacted by this trend. Putnam talks about social capital as having two classes – bridging social capital and bonding social capital. Bonding social capital links people together with others that are like them. Bridging brings unrelated individuals and communities together. Bill Wilson cast our fellowship as both bonding and bridging, “We are people who would usually not mix. But there exists among us a fellowship, a friendliness, and an understanding which in indescribably wonderful.” (Alcoholics Anonymous, p. 17)
As he was writing the final thoughts for Bowling Alone, Putnam doesn’t overlook what is now obvious to us; from 1995 to 2000, households with computers exploded from 7% to over 50%. As the end of the 20th century, many of us talked about how the internet might be ushering in a new era, not just a new century. Putnam mused at how the same excitement was in play a century earlier. The end of the 1800s heralded in the era of wire-transmitted communication and Putnam comments on the similarities:
The new communications technology triggered a lively debated among turn-of-the-century social philosophers that prefigured with remarkable fidelity the quickening controversy in contemporary America about the effects of the Internet. On the one hand, optimists enthused that the new technologies of communication would allow human sympathy wider scope. Altruism would expand in a society newly unified by rail, power line and telegraph. In William Allen White’s Utopian vision, the new technological advances in the communication field harbored the possibility of making the Nation a neighborhood… The electric wire, the iron pipe, the street railroad, the daily newspaper, the telephone… have made us all one body… There are no outlanders. It is possible for all men to understand one another… Indeed it is but the dawn of a spiritual awakening. (Bowling Alone, p. 376)
Were the newspapers and telegraphs that were ushering in the 20th century an American spiritual awakening? Has the internet – for AA or the world as a whole – been what we would call a spiritual awakening? As well as euphoria, at times like these Putnam cautions that, “Social dislocation can easily breed a reactionary form of nostalgia.” Especially for older members of society, for whom adaptation to modern ways seems more risky, there is a craving for the good ol’ days.
The younger generation almost always looks to the future with optimism. I put the question of dwindling AA membership to Shelly, Bruce and Mark who co-host arguably the most successful and longest running addiction/recovery podcasts going, Recovery 101. They are over 900 episodes into this meeting after the meeting format. They, and their listeners, represent a younger generation of 12-Step culture who embrace new mediums of recovery and community. What did they think of sagging AA membership numbers? Would they pine for a return to mid-20th century AA? Not only did they not see fewer people going to meetings as no-big-deal, they didn’t consider AA’s count of people at face-to-face meetings as an accurate account of AA as a whole. The internet allows us to engage AA in ways that are not included in a pencil and paper survey.
Laura Silverman, at eight years of sobriety, created The Sobriety Collective. Laura came to AA in her early 20s when she got sober and didn’t really know there was an internet recovery community alternative. At first, she had to go to AA but after a year, she stopped going. Oh, she would come back for her anniversary once a year to celebrate sobriety. Around three years she was recommended to attend a young people’s meeting and that got her active again for another year or so. Then she started looking for something that fit her needs more that face-to-face (f2f) 12-Step meetings. She found it on the internet.
How many Lauras are there out there; dozens, millions? Look at how many Facebook, Google, Skype and Yahoo and Twitter recovery communities there are. I remember MySpace AA pages and ICQ from earlier this century. Google and Facebook could be replaced by the next best thing, one day. Look at what you and I and a whole community are doing right now; we’re living sober online. What’s a phase and what’s a trend and who’s to say?
AA as a whole may be following a cycle that has more to do with human nature or social convention than anything right or wrong we are doing in terms of stewardship. Female AAs are at an all-time high and I don’t think the original literature is any less misogynistic than it was outed for during the women’s lib era. What facts ought to lead to what conclusions? I see in our data that we can modernize AA – look ahead to AA 2050, not back to AA 1950 and prepare our home-groups and AA as a whole for tomorrow’s newcomer. Looking at data, I am pulled by my biases and my inclination towards confirming my preconceived views. Don’t we all?
Now, I look forward to your feedback.
Joe C. is excited about a weekend recovery retreat at Sedona Mago Retreat Center in Arizona, September 18th to 20th.
Sober since 1976, Joe authored the first secular daily reflection book for addicts and alcoholics, Beyond Belief: Agnostic Musings for 12 Step Life and hosts a 21st century look at 12-Step life, Rebellion Dogs Radio.
Joe has been an important contributor to AA Agnostica over the years. Here are his articles:
- A Changing Landscape (May 13, 2015)
- Living with Lillian (February 11, 2015)
- Letting Go of God (October 26, 2014)
- Together We Can (August 31, 2014)
- A Reverend at the Agnostic AA Convention (April 13, 2014)
- Is listability the new AA? (January 19, 2014)
- Six Shades of Nonbelievers (August 11, 2013)
- Pharisees and Recalcitrants (August 26, 2012)
- Quadrants of Knowledge (June 24, 2012)
- Never Fear Needed Change (June 3, 2012)
- The Silver Tongued Devil and I (February 25, 2012)
- Let the Wood Burn (December 13, 2011)
- AA Public Information: “Let it Begin With Me” (July 24, 2011)
For the record, Joe’s first article was the fourth ever posted on AA Agnostica. The first, Anarchy Melts, by Bill Wilson and initially published on the Grapevine, was posted on June 22, 2011.