Young people, like people in general, will commit to the things they trust.

Zac Alstin
6 December 2010
Reproduced with Permission

Young people in our society seem unwilling or unable to make commitments, or so I have heard. Being young myself I concede that this criticism could have been applied to areas of my own life in the recent past. Areas of my life such as work, study, religion, and marriage could all have been described by others as suffering from lack of commitment. But this description does not ring true to my experience. To diagnose "lack of commitment" as the problem is not only to mistake a symptom for a cause; it even misinterprets the symptom.

To commit oneself means to give or entrust oneself to something or someone. Real commitment presupposes trust in the object of our commitment. Yet there is plenty of trust in young people today, just not in the areas we might expect or appreciate. Firstly, young people trust entertainment, and commit themselves to it wholeheartedly. Games, movies, television series, are all objects of genuine commitment. This is what it means to be a fan - a devotee, or fanatic. People will happily devote their time and money to entertainment in various forms. They genuinely entrust themselves to these sources of enjoyment and amusement.

Young people - in lesser numbers - also commit themselves to sports, and in Australia this deserves its own category apart from other forms of entertainment. The level of commitment displayed either in support of a particular team, or even in participation at various levels, demonstrates a high degree of trust in the goodness of sport. At its highest levels, we see many examples of young people committing themselves to extremely disciplined regimes of training, competition and performance. No one could honestly doubt the commitment of serious athletes.

Thirdly, we find that many young people do in fact commit themselves to certain career paths, most notably the "vocational" professions such as medicine. Do not underestimate the idealism and commitment of a med student! Many of them will embark on up to twelve years of study before arriving at their desired specialisation.

Young people - like most people - will commit to the things they trust. What is remarkable about the present era is not the changing patterns of commitment, but the changing patterns of trust. People no longer trust marriage, hence they will not commit to it. Is it really a surprise that young people do not trust marriage when divorce rates are so high? In Australia, the crude divorce rate in 2008 was 2.2 per 1000 people, compared to a crude marriage rate of 5.5 per 1000 people. The median duration of these marriages before separation was less than 9 years. A full third of marriages entered into in 2000-2002 could be expected to end in divorce.

The stark contrast between marital vows and subsequent divorce does not inspire trust in the institution of marriage. The idea that marriage vows reinforce a relationship seems counterfactual to many people. Surely the substance of the relationship is more important than the external form? Why should we tempt fate by making claims of trust and commitment that we cannot truly rely on? No doubt those divorced couples originally trusted in their own professions of love and commitment, yet within nine years those commitments were undone. The implication is that when it comes to grand vows, we cannot even trust ourselves.

The great English writer G.K. Chesterton saw into the heart of the problem:

The man who makes a vow makes an appointment with himself at some distant time or place. The danger of it is that himself should not keep the appointment. And in modern times this terror of one's self, of the weakness and mutability of one's self, has perilously increased, and is the real basis of the objection to vows of any kind.

I have no doubt that most young people would love to experience the certainty and trust necessary for great commitments. They would love to trust themselves enough to make lifelong vows, to know without doubt the right path to follow in life. Many people dream of meeting the "right" person, the one about whom we will have no doubts. People long to find their vocation in life, to have enough certainty to strike out in a bold new direction. Even the deep contempt for religion in our secularised society is an expression of desire for something truly worthy of our faith.

So the real problem for young people - and for plenty of older people too - is that we are desperately confused, ignorant, and cynical about what we can really trust in this world. For many of us, all we can really trust is the simple, reliable circle of entertainment, amusement, and escapism that our consumer culture excels at. I can trust that my favourite junk food will taste reassuringly good. I can trust that my favourite television series will keep me entertained. I can trust that my next technological toy will amuse me for a while.

But if we wish to rise above this small solipsistic circle of amusement, we must take pains to re-examine the higher commitments we have spurned. Whether we ultimately find ourselves trusting marriage or rejecting it, we must do so on the grounds of real knowledge, not the half-hearted and derogatory messages passed down to us through the media, or through the embittered attitudes of people whose personal experience has helped define marriage for whole generations.

Marriage is simply the monogamous union of the sexes. It is an objective fact whether we seek to formalise it or not. Hence, the growing number of people in de facto relationships are actually partaking of 'common law' marriage, though they may not realise it. Where ever a couple of complementary sexes unite in a monogamous relationship, they are embarking on the course of marriage. It may be imperfectly realised and poorly understood, but the objective reality is undeniable.

People may think they are avoiding the conflicted and confused realm of marriage, but their de facto relationships are an affirmation of the marital relationship nonetheless. If they can understand that marriage is so simple and so normal, perhaps they will begin to realise the sense and reason behind our marital traditions. Such couples do, implicitly, already trust and have already committed themselves, albeit informally, to the good of marriage. They are wise already to the realities of married life, even as they look askance at its much maligned, formal rites and customs.

Most of our traditions have survived because they worked, and they worked because they reflected the reality of human nature and human life. If their substance is true, the commitments cherished by our ancestors will never die out. And we can therefore have confidence in the goodness and value of such institutions, even if the present generation cannot yet bring itself to trust them completely.

Zac Alstin works at the Southern Cross Bioethics Institute in Adelaide, South Australia.