What young adults rate as important


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Content type
Family Matters article

August 1991


Young adults are often criticised as being materialistic, selfish and hedonistic. However, the Institute's Becoming Adult Study found that contrary to public perception, and despite changing societal patterns, traditional values such as family, jobs and future security were of great importance to the young adults interviewed. Author discusses the findings.

Young adults are often criticised as being materialistic, selfish and hedonistic. However, the Institute's Becoming Adult Study found that contrary to popular perception, and despite changing societal patterns, traditional values such as family, jobs and future security were of great importance to the young adults interviewed. Robyn Hartley, AIFS Fellow, discusses the findings.

Young adults form a crucial bridge between one generation and the next. They carry values, attitudes and beliefs derived from their parents and from the society and culture in which they have been raised. At the same time, they help to shape, by their own behaviour and the decisions they make, changes in the society in which they and the next generation will live. Many will become parents and raise children, others will have contact with and influence children less directly; all will contribute to the pattern of social change. The values that they hold therefore have important implications for the future.

There are unquestionably differences in the lives of today's young adults and those of their parents. In general, young adults marry later than their parents, more live in de facto relationships, more have had a number of significant relationships before marriage, they tend to have children later, and women expect to return to work after they have children.

However, the AIFS Becoming Adult Study indicates that changing patterns have not lessened the importance to young people of the 'traditional' areas of family, work and close relationships. Social contact, enjoyment and 'self development' are also important to many young adults. Social service or community involvement is less important and religion is of little concern. While there is a great deal of similarity between what young women and men feel is very important in their lives, there are also some significant differences.

The Becoming Adult Study

The Becoming Adult Study was based on interviews in 1990 with 138 23-year- olds, who had been interviewed some seven years earlier for the Institute's Children in Families Study. The original sample was selected to include an over- representation of young people who, at 16, were in step and single- parent families. One half of the total sample was living in a family with two biological parents, and the other half had experienced the separation or divorce of parents, or the death of a parent. Preliminary analysis indicates that family type at the age of 16 does not systematically affect the values discussed below although it did affect responses to some questions.

In the Becoming Adult study, the young adults were asked to rate, on a five-point scale, the importance of certain areas in their lives. The areas were based around seven categories of values identified by Lowenthal, Thurnher and Chiriboga (1975). With the addition of several items about family connections and main family members, a factor analysis suggested that five main areas were covered by the 28 items. They are 'instrumental' (to do with jobs and future security), 'interpersonal-expressive' (friendship, sociability and enjoyment of life), family relationships, religion, and public and personal involvement in society. In addition, there were three other items that were not clearly related to any of the above areas. One of those items, 'a close intimate relationship', is discussed below.

Overall, average ratings on three of the five factors (family, jobs and future security, and friendship, sociability and enjoyment of life) were close to the 'very important' end of the scale. 'Involvement in society' was rated as somewhat less important, but on average was seen as moderately important. Ratings on the 'religion' scale indicated this was the least important of the five areas and ratings were very diverse. 'Religion' was the only scale on which there was a significant difference between the mean ratings of women and men, women seeing it as more important.

The accompanying Table shows those items in each scale rated as 'very important' by more than 50 per cent of females or males.

Items rated as 'very important' by more than 50% of females or males
 percentage rating item as 'very important'
'Family' scale
family connections7046
'Jobs and future security' scale 
planning for a secure future6657
having an interesting job5361
having a challenging job4251
developing a career4154
'Friendship, sociability and enjoyment of life' scale 
enjoying myself5353
experiencing life to the full5545
being true to myself7456
my friends5541
'Involvement in society' scale 
leisure activities4753
Item not related to above scales: a close intimate relationship7146

Jobs and future security

Jobs and future security were consistently rated as important, with 'planning for a secure future' and 'having an interesting job' rated respectively as very important by 63 per cent and 56 per cent of young adults. Planning for a secure future was very important for a slightly greater percentage of women than men. It is possible that women feel more vulnerable because most will bear children and, as reported in the last issue of Family Matters, they expect to have interrupted work patterns (Hartley 1991). They may therefore be more concerned than men about future security.

On the other hand, there was a noticeable trend for more young men (54 per cent) than young women (40 per cent) to rate 'developing a career' as very important. For men, this probably reflects greater opportunities for, and expectations of, uninterrupted employment. However, the fact that so many women rated this as 'very important' in their lives is significant. It is unlikely that 40 per cent of the mothers of these young women would have rated careers in the same way.

Family connections

The group was quite diverse as to contact with and the intimacy of relationships with their parents and siblings. Forty per cent lived with one or more of their parents; as nearly as could be ascertained, about 60 per cent lived relatively close to parents (up to an hour's drive away); 23 per cent were or had been married; some had had very stormy relationships with parents during adolescence; a few had still unresolved conflicts with their family.

'Family' was rated as marginally more important than jobs and future security, and enjoyment and social life. It is possible that the finding reflects a bias towards socially acceptable responses, however it is not likely to be a strong bias as the overall tenor of interviews in the study reflects the importance of families in these young adults' lives. It is also possible that something that is very important in one's life can be so in a negative way; again evidence from other parts of the interviews would suggest this is only likely to be so in a very small number of cases.

There were some interesting differences between the responses of young women and young men, and between responses to different items regarding family. 'Family connections' were very important for significantly more women than men (70 per cent compared with 46 per cent). This result is likely to be influenced by the fact that women were more likely than men to be married themselves. Young men made a distinction between 'family connections' and different family members. When asked to rate how important their mother was in their lives, 64 per cent of young men said she was very important compared with 73 per cent of young women.

Fewer fathers than mothers were rated as very important by either women or men. This is partly due to the over- representation in the group of young adults from female- headed single-parent families whose fathers had had little to do with them for some years. There was a significant difference between responses depending on the type of family, with those from intact families more frequently rating fathers as 'very important'. The difference between the responses of young adults who lived in step and single- parent families at 16 was negligible. Where the absence of a parent was due to death rather than separation or divorce, fathers were more frequently rated as 'very important', even when, as in the majority of cases, it was the father who was dead.

However, family type at age 16 is likely to be only part of the explanation for differences between the rating of fathers and mothers, as differences appeared in all family types. The finding probably reflects the generally greater involvement of mothers in child-rearing, the tendency for women to carry more of the emotional side of family relationships and for contact with adult children to be maintained more through mothers than fathers. This last point was evident among young adults in the Becoming Adult Study. The fact that mothers are rated as 'very important' in the lives of nearly three-quarters of the women probably related to one-third of the young women in the study being, or having been, married, and nearly one in five having children (only a handful of the men had offspring). Although certainly not true in every case, many of these young women said marriage and having children had improved their relationship with their mothers.

Finally, siblings were rated as 'very important' by 64 per cent of women and 52 per cent of men who had brothers and sisters.

The social self and the inner self

A good social life, friends and sociability were important, with 'enjoying myself', 'experiencing life to the full' and 'being true to myself' being rated most frequently as very important; 'friends' slightly less so. Somewhat surprisingly, the item that the highest percentage of women (74 per cent) thought was very important in their lives was 'being true to myself'. Just more than half the men also rated it as very important. While this may well have different meanings for different people, it appeared to be quite strongly related to sociability and enjoyment.

'Discovering who I am' and 'having time to myself', the more reflective side of self, were very important to more women than men.

Involvement in society

Involvement in society included public activities such as doing something constructive for society and involving oneself in the community, and more personal recreation and hobbies. The area overall was moderately important for young adults, with no differences between importance for men and women. It is difficult to account for why those from single-parent backgrounds rated this area as significantly more important in their lives than did those from step- or intact families. It may be that there is less of a pull from family and more of a push for involvement in the outside world for those from single-parent families. The finding perhaps is related to the earlier independence of those from single-parent families found by some researchers.


Religion appeared to be the least important of the five areas for young adults. Findings are consistent with other studies in Australia which indicate that religion is not very important generally, but is more important for women than for men. Of interest, too, is the fact that views about the importance of religion were spread quite widely across the range of possible ratings, and averaged very close to the mid-point of the five- point scale. Overall, responses were quite similar whether the question was about 'God', 'religion' or 'developing my spiritual side'. The clear difference between average ratings for females and males on this scale was wholly related to the different ways in which they responded to the item 'God'. There was a small number of people for whom a specific religion or general spiritual development were very important.

Partners and intimate relationships

The item 'a close, intimate relationship with another person' was not systematically related to any of the five main scales. It was, however, seen as very important by 71 per cent of women and 46 per cent of men; indeed, only a handful of people saw it as anything less than moderately important, the mid-point of the scale. The fact that this is an area of great importance for more women than men is not surprising, given young women's socialisation, the tendency of women to value emotional closeness, women's earlier age of partnering than men, and the fact that a higher percentage of women in the group were married.

The young adults in the study looked for a variety of characteristics in a partner. Honesty, caring, trust, intimacy, stability, friendship and the ability to communicate were frequently mentioned; that indefinable element of 'personality' appealed to some, men especially. Physical attractiveness, particular physical characteristics, good looks or just 'looks' were mentioned by 10 per cent of the women and 30 per cent of the men. This does not necessarily mean that young men look more to physical than emotional or other attributes in choosing a partner, nor that 'looks' are more important to men than women. It may be that men are less inclined to talk about personality or psychological characteristics. Women may feel it is less acceptable for them to mention the good looks or physically attractive features of men.

Finally, despite fewer men than women saying that a close, intimate relationship was very important in their lives, approximately 70 per cent of men and women preferred to be in a relationship with someone rather than be unattached (16 per cent of men and 13 per cent of women; the remainder were unsure).


In discussing the values of young adults, we need to keep in mind several factors. People's stated values, beliefs and attitudes do not always correspond directly with their behaviour. In some cases, there tends to be a bias towards the positive end of a scale, towards what might be seen as the more socially acceptable responses.

The areas that emerged as important in young adults' lives - family, jobs and future security, a close intimate relationship and the enjoyment of life and sociability - may be especially important at this stage in their lives. Most saw themselves as reasonably independent, even if they were still living with one or more parents; most had established an identity of their own, though some were still struggling; most were conscious of an adult role where they exercised responsibility not only for themselves but potentially for others too; some were able to reflect on their experiences and see the positive side of difficult times in the past.

Their lives and circumstances will, however, inevitably change over time, and what is salient now may not be so in the future. While the areas that have been identified as important are generally fairly enduring across adulthood, some shifts in personal goals and general orientation in life are to be expected as people become older and move into different stages of the life cycle.


  • Hartley, R. (1991), 'To work or not to work: women, work and family responsibilities', Family Matters, No.28, Australian Institute of Family Studies, Melbourne.
  • Lowenthal, M.F., Thurnher, M. and Chiriboga, D. (1975), Four Stages of Life: A Comparative Study of Women and Men Facing Transitions, Jossey-Bass Publishers, San Francisco.