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
of marriages entered into in 2000-2002 could be expected to end in

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


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

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.

Zac Alstin is a writer, editor and stay-at-home dad to three marvellous children, in Adelaide, South Australia. His hobbies include martial arts, making things at home, and contemplating the underlying...