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Who's Afraid of Commitment?

Aug 17, 2007
One of the most popular films of last year was the French-made March of the Penguins, a documentary that reveals the extraordinary lengths to which the Emperor Penguin goes in order to raise a chick.

Sentimentality aside, there is a rather sober lesson to take home. If the penguins teach us anything about love, it is that love demands commitment, and that is something the human species finds it increasingly difficult to manage.

We would rather pledge ourselves today to the preservation of penguins, or the Snow Leopard or the Hairy-eared Dwarf Lemur than give ourselves till-death-do-us-part to a spouse. If you Google "commitment" on the Web, one of the first things to come up is commitmentphobia.com, a site dedicated to bagging the pathologically reluctant spouse.

We all know the trend. In the United States, for example, the marriage rate has fallen nearly 50 per cent since 1960 and unmarried partner households have increased from 523,000 in 1970 to nearly five million.

Young people now strongly believe that cohabitation is a good way to test their relationships, and most of them spend some time living together outside of marriage, not realising they are increasing their risk of breaking up when they do marry. Divorce rates are high, even though many involve low conflict marriages which could be saved.

Does it matter? Yes it does. Most people still want to marry eventually. Few women will risk having more than one child outside of marriage, which offers the greatest security to both mothers and children. Commitment to lifelong marriage produces greater happiness amongst couples. When bad times come it helps them through.

Married people in an Oklahoma study (2002) were asked, "Have you ever seriously thought your marriage was in trouble?" The 34 per cent who said "yes" were then asked, "Are you glad you are still together?" and 92 per cent said they were. Among those who were divorced, 85 per cent gave "lack of commitment" as the main reason well ahead of "too much conflict and arguing", on 61 per cent.

Service professions hit

Fear of commitment extends well beyond marriage, however. The Catholic Church in many places lacks vocations to the priesthood. Service professions such as nursing and teaching are experiencing shortages.

In the case of nursing it is becoming critical because of the ageing of populations especially in the developed countries. The US Bureau of Labour Statistics expects a shortfall of more than a million nurses by 2012.

Aside from demographics, the crisis seems to stem, in part, from a growing distaste for the hands-on side of nursing. "Too posh to wash," is how an experienced British nurse has described some of the newer recruits to the profession in his country. Increasingly personal care is in the hands of immigrant workers who are more accepting of both the work and low pay.

As the service ethic declines and the free market intrudes, money looms larger in hospital staff retention. A 2004 Canadian survey of the healthcare sector found that only 43 per cent of employees said they would stay with their current employer if offered a similar job with slightly higher pay elsewhere.

Higher up the professional pyramid doctors are avoiding specialties that demand longer hours and being on call. The self-employed family doctor especially one who will serve a rural community is becoming extinct.

A recent survey by the New Zealand College of General Practitioners indicates that a new generation of GPs, especially women, want to be paid a salary, clock out at 5 pm and spend more time with their families. A British woman specialist two years ago expressed some doubt that a medical profession in which women predominate (as they are tending to do) will be able to provide the range of specialists society needs.

Meanwhile, if immigrant workers are bailing out the health system and stopping other gaps in the workforce of the West, they may also be hedging their bets. More than 90 countries now recognize dual citizenship, which means that large numbers of people (as many as 25 million in the US according to one estimate) no longer feel absolutely committed to one country.

On top of this is the decline of what Robert Putnam, of Bowling Alone fame, would call civic engagement: political parties no longer attract mass membership, unions complain about worker apathy; service groups languish for want of volunteers; the majority of people don't go to church, and many do not even sit down to a family meal. Our social capital is depleted.

Spoilt for choice

What is behind all this? The chief suspect is individualism, that dynamic in post-modern society that makes the world seem to revolve around personal choice. People have to be free to choose, of course, but today's freedom of choice tends to be freedom from commitment rather than for it.

Once, embarking on adult life was a matter of finding a place in society in the workforce and in other social institutions, making their ethos and rules one's own. Now it is a question of selecting from society the elements of a unique personal lifestyle, or "life shopping" as British researcher Kate Fox calls it. And this can be a complex and lengthy process.

Fox, the director of the Oxford University Social Issues Research Centre, has studied the generation born between 1978 and 1994, the so-called Generation Y, noted their tendency to flit from one career or relationship to another in pursuit of an elusive ideal, and concluded that Y stands for young experimenting perfection seeker.

Unlike the yuppies of the 1980s who were after money and status, "Yeppies are often not quite sure they want, some vague notion of fulfillment, usually, and even less sure about how to achieve it," she says.

Whatever one thinks of such generalizations, it does appear that the freedom of choice they were brought up to revere and regard as their birthright is a mixed blessing for many young people, even a burden. A study of New Zealand school leavers finds them avoiding the notion of a career: "On the one hand the weight of possibilities puts pressure on them to make the best choices. On the other, the flexibility provided by choice is something they would not do without," says Dr Karen Vaughan.

Really? "Flexibility" hardly sounds like a notion that would enthrall young people. It has the ring of the market economist rather than the idealist. One young blogger responding to the Fox study wrote: "Freedom from commitment is not an admirable goal for life, but a commitment to discover love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control is because it breaks no laws or hurts no-one. Perfection is not seeking what I can make of my life, but my commitment to someone who can."

Many others of the Y generation have seen through the myth of choice and are learning about commitment to others not only from their families but also through experiences such as volunteering and new forms of political commitment facilitated by the Web.[11]

Paths to commitment

Nearly half of American young people believe that volunteering for community activities is important, and in 2002, 40 per cent of youth and young adults donated time to a group. They may participate in anything from blood drives and day care to work with the physically disabled and culturally deprived.

And, while young people are barely interested in traditional politics, many are attracted to causes ranging from conservation to the defence of the unborn child. Show the average young person (sitting them in front of a computer is not enough) how they can give themselves to others and they will come back for more.

One of the keys to commitment and service, whether among young people or older, is religious faith. Religiously committed teenagers are more likely to volunteer in the community, participate in sports and engage in student government. If they carry their faith commitment into adulthood they are more likely to marry and to have more than one child a fact that has some secularists worried.

Again, married couples with a family to bring up are likely to be more committed to their community, their country, and the political process. They have an important stake in both stability and growth. They will tend to put more into their professional work, and not just for the sake of their own family.

They have the makings of ideal citizens of their country and the world. Faith, marriage and family may not appeal to some of their fellow citizens, but a likeness to the Emperor Penguin probably will.

If fidelity in nature can fill cinemas, there is hope for the commitment phobic yet.
About the Author
Carolyn Moynihan is Deputy Editor of MercatorNet. MercatorNet analyses current affairs and international news and believes that ethics is more than opinions, that there is a transcendent dimension to our lives, and that facts are sturdier than ideology. Learn more at mercatornet.com.
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