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For Your Marriage

Marriage Today covers current trends and research pertaining to marriage and family life in today's world.

Young Adults Remain Optimistic About Lifelong Marriage

Eighty-six percent of young people between the ages of 18 and 29 surveyed by a new, nationwide Clark University Poll of Emerging Adults expect one day to have a marriage that lasts a lifetime.

That particular finding of the poll stands out at a time when it rather commonly is believed that young people fear marriage and judge the prospects for marital success in their own lives with pessimism.

Clark University is a small, liberal arts research university in Worcester, Mass. Jeffrey Arnett, a Clark psychology professor, directed the poll.

For more than a decade, Arnett has conducted research on young Americans in the midst of a stage of life he calls “emerging adulthood.” This stage lasts from the age of 18 through the mid-to-late 20s.

Many social and economic factors contributed to creating emerging adulthood as a new life stage, Arnett explained. For example, many young people found they needed more education in order to compete for jobs in an information and technology economy; the average age of marrying and having children rose; society witnessed important changes in women’s roles and opportunities.

In a 2006 book, “Emerging Adulthood: The Winding Road From the Late Teens Through the Twenties” (Oxford University Press), Arnett argued that this new stage of life is distinct both from the adolescence that precedes it and the young adulthood to follow.

While Arnett described emerging adults as wary and unsettled, he also found them hopeful and optimistic.

The Optimism Factor

In a recent address to guidance counselors, Arnett suggested that it simply “takes longer” today for young people to “grow up” than was once the case. At the point when young people graduate from high school, adulthood seems “so far out there,” he observed.

The extended stage of emerging adulthood that these young people then enter can be a “lonely” time, as well as a time of uncertainty. Emerging adults wonder what will happen to them 10 years down the road.

None of that means, however, that emerging adults lack optimism in the face of the future. Arnett appears to reject stereotypes according to which emerging adults fall far short in the areas of goals or motivation, for example.

Even if emerging adulthood is marked by anxieties, young people at this stage can feel rather confident about the future, sensing that the promise of the adulthood ahead of them exceeds what they have experienced of life thus far.

Arnett suggested to the guidance counselors he addressed that emerging adults who were raised in relatively affluent homes where they had quite a lot might well be expecting something more from their own adulthood in terms of human values. Some might even say they want a better marriage than their parents had.

Is it because they frequently remain optimistic that emerging adults expect their future adulthood to be characterized by a lasting marriage?

“It is striking to see how optimistic today’s emerging adults are about their prospects of having a lifelong marriage,” Arnett said in comments on the findings of his new poll. These young people hardly are unaware of present-day divorce statistics. Yet, “nearly all” emerging adults expect to find a place among those whose marriage journeys do not lead to divorce, he pointed out.

In fact, he said, among “today’s emerging adults, the ones with divorced parents are often the ones who are most determined to avoid divorce,” even if statistically speaking they are considered to be at greater risk of divorce than others.

The Clark University Poll of Emerging Adults interviewed 1,029 young people between 18 and 29. Among its goals, the poll sought to learn the attitudes of emerging adults toward work, toward love, sex and marriage, toward the use of online social networking sites. The poll also wanted to know what emerging adults think it means to be an adult.

Traditional Expectations for Love and Marriage

When the university on Aug. 7 released findings of the poll related to marriage and relationships, it said:

“In an age of short-lived celebrity marriages, widespread divorce, babies being born outside marriage and the ever-popular ‘hooking up,’ young people are remarkably traditional about their expectations for love, marriage and children – for both themselves and society at large.”

According to the poll, 73 percent of emerging adults believe couples should be married before having a child. However, if in that regard they mirror their elders to a certain degree, the poll found that in another important way they differ from many of their elders by ranking family goals higher than career goals.

Sixty-one percent of emerging adults expect to give up some career goals in order to have the family life they desire. It is noteworthy that young men are as likely as young women to think this way about family life and careers.

“That’s a lot different from the past,” Arnett noted. He said:

“Traditionally, women have been far more likely to sacrifice career goals for family. These findings suggest that this may change in the new generation of emerging adults to a more equal sharing of family responsibilities.”

About the author 
David Gibson served for 37 years on the editorial staff at Catholic News Service, where he was the founding and long-time editor of Origins, CNS Documentary Service. David received a bachelor’s degree from St. John’s University in Minnesota and an M.A. in religious education from The Catholic University of America. Married for 38 years, he and his wife have three adult daughters and six grandchildren.