It’s out with the old at the Freemasons as the international society looks to boost the numbers of young people joining its ranks as it works to survive in the modern world.
Founded in the 19th century in Europe before being exported to the U.S. and worldwide, freemasonry is also known as “the craft,” in homage to its roots in stonemasonry.
It portrays itself as a “fraternal society” where its members support one another, providing a space for like-minded people to socialize at “lodges” and carry out charitable works, while enabling its six million members worldwide to improve themselves on a moral level.
Famous Freemasons have included presidents and prime ministers, from Winston Churchill in the U.K. and George Washington in the U.S. and famous businessmen such as Henry Ford and Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak. Mozart and Buzz Aldrin were also members.
The group also has strong links to the British royal family, with the Queen’s cousin, the Duke of Kent, the current patron, or “Grand Master,” of the U.K.’s Freemasons.
However, the society is not without its detractors who accuse it of being a secret society, where its predominantly male-only lodges use “funny handshakes” and “secret symbols” to recognize one another. Furthermore, it has been accused frequently of being an “old boys network” where members use their connections for personal gain.
In a bid to quash what it calls the “myths” surrounding it as it heads towards its tercentenary in 2017, the United Grand Lodge of England and Wales (UGLE) – the governing body of the U.K. Freemasons which oversees around 8,000 lodges – has undergone something of a re-branding exercise.
“We want to be seen as a more relevant society,” said Nigel Brown, Grand Secretary (or chief executive) of UGLE told CNBC.
“There’s no doubt that the majority of our members are older but young people have a huge amount to offer to the mix within lodges – the older members might have more life experience but the younger ones have new ideas and it’s the combination of that that’s important.”
The organisation has tried to raise awareness of its existence and activities among young people as its existing membership ages. In 2005, it set up a “universities scheme” to “establish and/or enhance arrangements and opportunities for undergraduates and other university members to enjoy Freemasonry,” as the scheme’s website says.
At its post war peak, there were in excess of 500,000 Freemasons in the U.K.. By November this year, there are 214,000 – which had fallen from 228,000 in 2011. But the latest figures give some promising reading for the society.
Although in November 2013, the 21-30 age group represented only 2.07 percent of the total membership of U.K. Freemasons while all other age groups have declined in numbers, the range of younger members has increased.
Membership among the 21 to 30 age group has increased 7.65 percent over the last two years while membership in all other age groups decreased; The 40 – 50 age group has declined just over 10 percent, around 7 percent among 50 to 60 year olds and is down almost 10 percent between 60 to 70 year olds.