Young Adults Remain Optimistic About Their Future
by David Gibson
Young adults in America were buffeted fiercely by the economic recession. But apparently their spirits are stronger than some anticipated.
A Pew Research Center report released Feb. 9 shows that despite the economic challenges they face, today’s young adults between 18 and 34 “are happy with their lives overall” and remain optimistic about their life. Their future hopes include happy marriages and parenthood.
The Pew Center report, titled “Young, Underemployed and Optimistic,” does not downplay the economic downturn’s impact on young adults. Based on a December 2011 nationwide survey of adults overall, the center notes that “a plurality of the American public believes that young adults are having the toughest time of any age group in today’s economy.”
A majority of American adults thinks it is “more difficult for today’s young adults than it was for their parents’ generation to pay for college, find a job, buy a home or save for the future.” In fact, “middle-aged and older adults agree it’s much harder to be a young adult today” than a generation ago.
Young adults agree with their elders here. They realize the sluggish economy influenced “a wide array of coming-of-age decisions about career, marriage, parenthood and schooling.” That makes it all the more noteworthy that young adults so often are optimistic.
Young Adults Share Same Values as Their Elders
At an important transitional moment, when young adults may be finishing their education, living on their own for the first time or starting a family, the economic downturn influenced important decisions on their part. For example, the Pew report says that more than 20 percent of young adults between 18 and 34 either delayed marriage or delayed having a baby because of the economy.
Educational level was a factor in these decisions. The report says that “when it comes to marriage and family, young adults without a college education are among the most likely to say economic conditions have affected their plans.”
Thus, among young adults who neither are college graduates nor currently enrolled in school, 28 percent say they “put off getting married, and an equal proportion say they have put off having a baby because of the economy.” But “among young adults who graduated from college or are currently enrolled in school, only about half as many” said the same.
The report presents “a nuanced picture” of young adults. Careers and future earnings are important goals for them, but not as important as marriage and parenthood.
“What young adults value in life mirrors the values of middle-aged and older adults: Family comes first, career comes second,” the report states.
Interestingly enough, young adults tend to believe they will achieve their life goals, a belief that “varies only slightly, if at all, among key demographic groups.” Thus, according to the report:
“Young men are just as likely as young women to say they expect to fulfill their ambitions.” Sixty-two percent of young whites and 65 percent of young Hispanics “are optimistic they will reach their goals, a view shared by 70 percent of young blacks.”
Life Goals: Marriage, Children
What goals are young adults “so optimistic about?” One is to be a good parent, considered “one of the most important things” for their lives by “more than half (54 percent) of young adults, while an additional 34 percent consider it “very important but not the most.” More than half of young adults consider a successful marriage “very important.”
There are, however, some notable demographic differences within the young-adult population on marriage and parenthood. Thus, while 61 percent of young-adult women “list being a good parent as one of the most important things in their life, less than half of men (47 percent) say the same.”
More women than men in the survey considered having a successful marriage a top priority. And more whites than blacks, with Hispanics in the middle, considered having a successful marriage one of the most important things in life.
Coming of age in America grew more difficult with the recession’s arrival. Because it was harder for young people to get jobs or their earnings fell, some young people moved back home with their parents.
So the expectation that children should be financially independent by the time they are 22 continued to give ground in U.S. society. More and more adults 50 or older now believe children “don’t need to be independent until age 25 or older,” the report shows.
I suspect few parents will be surprised to hear that a key question about young people in our times asks precisely when it is that they come of age.
But in at least one happy way life today is considered easier for young adults, the Pew report observes. It says, “When it comes to keeping in touch with friends and family, most adults (62 percent) say it’s easier for today’s young people to stay connected than it was for their parents.”
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.