In 2009, Brookings Institute scholars Ron Haskins and Isabel Sawhill proposed a successful path into adulthood. Called the “success sequence,” this path is most likely to lead toward economic success and away from poverty. It includes finishing at minimum a high school education, getting a job, followed by marriage and then having children. Since proposing this path, no real test has been done to see if that approach applies to today’s young adults.
Researchers Brad Wilcox and Wendy Wang decided to measure the impact of the success sequence messaging on millennials. Wilcox is a senior fellow at the Institute for Family Studies. Wang is the director of research at the Institute for Family Studies and former senior researcher at Pew Research Center. Their findings reveal some interesting data about millennial behavior regarding education, employment, marriage and family.
According to the study, a record 55 percent of millennial parents (ages 28-34) have put childbearing before marriage. This indicates that today’s young adults take increasingly divergent paths toward adulthood when it comes to family formation. These divergent pathways are associated with markedly different economic fortunes among millennials.
“We found that 97 percent of millennials who followed the success sequence are not poor and are in the middle income track by age 30,” says Wilcox. “Based on every indicator, from our perspective, the success sequence is still quite relevant and compelling.”
Fully 86 percent of young adults who married first have family incomes in the middle or top third. Compare that to only 53 percent of millennials who put childbearing before marriage. For young, single and childless adults, 73 percent have family incomes in the middle or upper third income distributions.
The pattern holds true for racial and ethnic minorities, as well as young adults in lower income families.
- 76 percent of African American and 81 percent of Hispanic young adults who married first are in the middle or upper third of the income distribution. With them are 87 percent of whites.
- 71 percent of millennials who grew up in the bottom third of the income distribution, but married and then had a baby, moved up to the middle or upper third of the distribution as young adults.
“Some have questioned if the success sequence is all about education and work, with marriage being an afterthought,” Wilcox says. “Are education and work the only pieces really driving the story?
“Based on our findings, the link between marriage and economic success among millennials is robust. Compared with the path of having a baby first, marrying before children more than doubles young adults’ odds of being in the middle or top income tiers. This holds true, even after adjusting for education, childhood family income, employment status, race/ethnicity, sex and respondents’ scores on the Armed Forces Qualifying Test (AFQT) which measures intelligence and knowledge of a range of subjects.”
Findings from the study also show:
- A stunning 97 percent of millennials who follow the success sequence are NOT poor when they reach their prime young adult years (ages 28-34).
- 31 percent of millennial high school graduates (who didn’t follow the work and marriage steps by their mid-20s) are in poverty during their prime adult years.
According to Wilcox, data that tracks adults across the transition to adulthood indicates good news for following the success sequence. That path is the most likely one to guide people to realize the American Dream. Education, work and marriage are important - even for a generation that has taken increasingly varied routes into adulthood. Considering this, business and civic leaders should promote public policies and cultural changes that esteem this sequence and make it more attainable.
Based on this report, it appears that millennials are beginning to see the value in marriage. They're also finding out how the timing of their decisions impacts their ability to achieve their long-term goals.