May 10, 2010

From the Archives

Teenagers Want Successful Careers and Global Travel, Expect to Delay Marriage & Parenting

Spring is graduation season for millions of students. What are the aspirations of today’s teenagers as they think about their future? A new research study from the Barna Group examined a representative, nationwide sample of 602 teenagers, asking them to describe what they think their life will be like roughly 10 years from now, when they are young adults. To help teens respond with a specific time horizon in mind, the survey asked them what they believe their lives will be like when they are 25-years-old.

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College and Career
The most common aspirations of teenagers were related to college and their professional pursuits. Finishing a college degree was their top-rated future priority. A majority of teenagers felt certain that they would accomplish this goal by age 25. In all, 93% of teenagers said they would either definitely or probably obtain a college degree by their mid-twenties. In terms of career, 81% of teenagers felt they are likely to have a “great-paying job” by the time they are 25. Displaying their we-want-it-all perspective, 80% of teens also believed they would be serving in a “job where they can make a difference” by that age.

God and Global
Having a connection with God and international travel emerged as second-level priorities. Nearly three-quarters of teenagers felt they would have a close, personal relationship with God (72%) in the next decade or so. About seven out of 10 youths (71%) said they will definitely or probably have traveled to other countries by their mid-twenties.

Family and Church
Marriage and church involvement were on the third tier of aspirations. Most American teenagers expect to be engaged in these traditional institutions (58% and 63%, respectively). However, only a small percentage felt certain about these outcomes in their own lives: 29% of teenagers felt they would definitely be “actively involved in a church or faith community” and just 12% of teenagers felt certain about “being married” by age 25. Teenagers are even less likely to entertain traditional goals regarding parenting. Less than half of teenagers (40%) felt they may have children by age 25 and only one out of 11 (9%) said they would definitely become a parent in their early adult years. Of course, considerations of marriage and parenting are dependent on finding a willing partner; nonetheless, these pursuits are not top priorities for most students.

Fame versus Service
Media are filled with celebrity news and obscure-turned-famous individuals often made stars via reality television. Given the cultural fascination with fame, perhaps it is not surprising that one-quarter of teenagers (26%) said they expect to be “famous or well known” by the time they reach age 25. To their credit, teens are more likely to express the desire to be “regularly serving the poor” (48%) than to be famous, although that priority is less flattering considering that only 7% of teenagers said they would definitely be doing such other-oriented work as a young adult.

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Matters of Faith
Faith seems to influence what teens want in their lives. In terms of denomination, students who attend mainline churches were more likely than average to aspire to travel to other countries, while Protestant non-mainline attenders were above average in terms of their spiritual priorities (wanting to be close to God and active in a church). Non-mainline youth were also more likely than the norm to want to regularly serve the poor, yet they also were more interested than their peers in becoming famous.

Strong interest in staying connected with a church was most common among non-mainline teenagers (49%). Only one-quarter of mainline students (25%) and one-fifth of Catholic teens (20%) said they definitely expect their life to include active involvement with a faith community or church by age 25.

Current church attendance appears to be a better predictor of future religious activity than is a teen’s religious affiliation. Among weekly attenders of religious youth groups, 60% said they definitely will be involved in a church in the future, which compares to just 22% of teens who attend less frequently and 14% among teens who never attend such religious functions.

Age and Gender
Demographic differences played a significant role in teen aspirations. Teen girls were more likely than boys to define priorities and objectives. Girls were more likely to picture their lives with nine out of the 10 elements assessed in the study (the exception was being famous, an aspiration equally attractive to both sexes). Young women were twice as likely as young men to want a difference-making job, to be married, to have children, and to regularly serve the poor.

In terms of age, the youngest teens were much more idealistic than older teens in many ways. One of the biggest gaps is their predicted connection to a church: 41% of middle schoolers expect to be actively involved in a congregation, but that drops to 26% of high school freshman and sophomores and 24% among juniors and seniors.

High school students were also less likely than middle-schoolers to believe they would have a great-paying job, be married, have kids, be serving the poor, or experience fame by the age of 25.

What teenagers expect will happen in their life, by age 25
Will definitely
Will definitely or
probably happen
a college degree
have a great-paying job
have a job where you can make a difference
a close, personal relationship with God
traveled to other countries
actively involved in a church or faith community
regularly serving the poor
have children
be famous or well-known
Source: The Barna Group, YouthPollSM

About the Research
This report is based upon nationwide survey, conducted by The Barna Group with random samples of teenagers, ages 13 to 17.  The study, known as YouthPollSM, is an annual tracking study, conducted online, using one of the nation’s only nationally representative online panels. The survey was conducted in December 2009 and included interviews with 602 teens. The sample has a maximum margin of sampling error of ±4.1 percentage points at the 95% confidence level. Minimal statistical weighting was used to calibrate the sample to known population percentages in relation to demographic variables.

Mainline churches typically are considered to include the American Baptist Churches in the USA; the Episcopal Church; the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America; the Presbyterian Church (USA); the United Church of Christ; and the United Methodist Church.

Non-mainline churches are those congregations and affiliated with other Protestant denominations, the largest of which is the Southern Baptist Church.

The Barna Group (which includes its research division, the Barna Research Group) is a private, non-partisan, for-profit organization that conducts primary research on a wide range of issues and products, produces resources pertaining to cultural change, leadership and spiritual development, and facilitates the healthy spiritual growth of leaders, children, families and Christian ministries. Located in Ventura, California, Barna has been conducting and analyzing primary research to understand cultural trends related to values, beliefs, attitudes and behaviors since 1984. If you would like to receive free e-mail notification of the release of each new, bi-monthly update on the latest research findings from The Barna Group, you may subscribe to this free service at the Barna website ( Additional research-based resources, both free and at discounted prices, are also available through that website.

© Barna Group 2010.

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About Barna

Since 1984, Barna Group has conducted more than two million interviews over the course of thousands of studies and has become a go-to source for insights about faith, culture, leadership, vocation and generations. Barna is a private, non-partisan, for-profit organization.

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