The Success Sequence: Why Education, a Job, Marriage, Then Kids Is the Working Order

Ah, millennials. In some ways, they’re very traditional, suggesting that women should stay at home to raise their kids. In other ways, they are very Bohemian, doing as they please when the mood hits. But it turns out, the old-fashioned “success sequence” — a (high school or higher) degree, job, marriage, then children, in that order — is still the winning combination for securing financial well-being, even for this late-day-and-age group.

The term “success sequence” isn’t new. It was coined in the last decade by researchers looking for policy ideas that could help break the cycle of poverty. Of course, it was criticized for pointing out that the cycle of poverty is more likely to be perpetuated for kids born into poorly educated households without two parents and few economic opportunities. It has become rude to point this out even though that’s the problem the research is trying to solve.

But facts are facts, as it were, and a new study by W. Bradford Wilcox, a professor of sociology at the University of Virginia, and Wendy Wang, of the Institute for Family Studies, found that the success sequence holds up as a guidepost for today’s Millennials as it did for Baby Boomers, even after adjusting for a wide range of variables like childhood family income and education, 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.

The study found that “diverging paths into adulthood” taken by 28- to 34-year-olds — the eldest of the Millennial age group — produce very different economic outcomes.

Among the findings:

  • Millennials who follow the “success sequence” almost always avoid poverty, with 97 percent of Millennials who married first not being poor by age 28, compared to 72 percent who had children first.
  • 71 percent of Millennials from lower-income families who put marriage before children made it into the middle class or higher when they reached adulthood. Conversely, 41 percent of Millennials from lower-income families who put children first made it into the middle class or higher when they became adults.
  • Among black young adults, those who married before having children are almost twice as likely to be in the middle- or upper-income groups (76 percent) than those who had a baby first (39 percent).

success sequence statistics

Since 55 percent of 28- to 34-year-old millennial parents had their first child before marriage, the economic and family impacts will be felt for decades.

Millennials are more likely than previous generations to delay marriage and parenthood, but that doesn’t mean that they have to forego the order of education, work, and marriage. Indeed, there’s a reason the success sequence works.

Why might these three factors be so important for young adults today? Education confers knowledge, skills, access to social networks, and credentials that give today’s young adults a leg up in the labor force. Sustained full-time employment provides not only a basic floor for household income but, in many cases, opportunities for promotions that further boost income. Stable marriage seems to foster economies of scale, income pooling, and greater work effort from men, and to protect adults from the costs of multiple partner fertility and family instability.

Moreover, the sequencing of these factors is important insofar as young men and women are more likely to earn a decent income if they have at least acquired a high school education, and young marrieds are more likely to stay together if they have a modicum of education and a steady income. So, it’s not just that education, work, and marriage independently seem to matter, but the sequencing of education, work, and marriage may also increase the odds of financial success for today’s young adults.

Wilcox and Wang point out that there’s no statistical model to perfectly predict a youth’s future success. Some who succeeded came from roots missing those steps. Others who lived in households that followed the sequence ended up in the bottom third of the income scale. Lastly, there’s no conclusive evidence that the “sequence plays a causal or primary role in driving young adult success.”

The researchers also note that it’s easier to follow the success sequence when one is born into it, as opposed to young adults who came from poor neighborhoods, bad schools, and less educated households. It’s also easier to follow the success sequence when one comes from a cultural background that adopts these ideals and expectations rather than those groups who hold these values in lower regard.

But there’s no mistaking that the numbers overwhelmingly favor those who do follow the course, and that’s where both one’s personal “agency” and public policy come into play.

This report suggests that young adults from a range of backgrounds who followed the success sequence are markedly more likely to steer clear of poverty and realize the American Dream than young adults who did not follow the same steps.

Given the value of the success sequence, and the structural and cultural obstacles to realizing it faced by some young adults, policymakers, educators, civic leaders, and business leaders should take steps to make each component of the sequence more accessible. Any initiatives should be particularly targeted at younger adults from less advantaged backgrounds, who tend to have access to fewer of the structural and cultural resources that make the sequence readily attainable and appealing. The following three ideas are worth considering in any effort to strengthen the role that the success sequence plays in the lives of American young adults.

Read the full report here.

‘Choice Feminism’: Equal Opportunity and Gender Specialization

Picture this: Dad heads out to work in the morning. Mom stays home to care for the kids and maybe works part-time while they are in school. While Mom is home, she cooks, cleans, and runs the domestic sphere of the family while Dad earns the money needed to pay the bills. And everyone is happy.

Gasp! That sounds like the 1950s! Except it’s not. It’s 2017. And in this scenario, “Everyone is happy.”

“Feminism” is a word that has been loaded with undertones and assumptions for decades. And while critics may have a legitimate bone to pick with some of the social, cultural, and political issues that were born out of the 1960s feminist movement, don’t assume that the “f” word automatically refers to the man-hating, bra-burning ideology.

In fact, if we stopped to look at how millennial women — and men — now increasingly prefer traditional, female stay-at-home roles and male bread-winning roles, we might consider the principles of a certain kind of feminism that explains this recent shift.

It’s called “choice feminism,” and it is a term that has been adopted to describe the belief that women are free to choose the lifestyle they want, whether at home or in the workplace, without judgment. That work may be as the homemaker or as the breadwinner, or as a worker whose responsibilities are part-time in both of those environments.

The key is that women get to make the decision whether they stay in or work out of the home. And it’s a natural fit for the newest generation of parents.

In a recent analysis, researchers Samuel Sturgeon and W. Bradford Wilcox explore why the enthusiasm for choice feminism has increased among the millennial set. Citing a new report by sociologists Joanna Pepin and David Cotter, they write:

The increasing popularity of intensive mothering in the 1990s, frustrations over the stresses associated with balancing work and family, and a media and pop culture backlash to feminism in the 1990s — think of the ‘you can’t have it all’ meme from the era — made 1970s-style feminism, with its insistence on moms combining full-time work and family life, less appealing to a growing minority of young adults.

Translation: millennials, who as children in the 1990s watched the backlash by women trying to be on 100 percent of the time at work and 100 percent of the time at home, think the early feminist rat race is an exhausting and undesirable way to live.

Rather than embrace a ’70s-style feminism where everything is supposed to be split 50-50 in the home, a growing share of young adults embrace an ethic closer to matching two-parent families as they really are in 21st century America: That is, millennials may take a more favorable view of gender specialization in the family because it remains quite common in their own experience and, in an era of choice feminism, less problematic.

Just as this helps explain, at least in part, why preferences in gender roles have morphed since baby boomers and Generation Xers were young, Sturgeon and Wilcox also propose what choice feminism now provides to women: equality and gender specialization.

Choice feminism allowed women to invest heavily in their children, juggle work and family responsibilities, and maintain a sense of feminist self-respect. It stands to reason that, in the spirit of this choice feminism, many young adults support an ethic of equal opportunity for women in the public sphere even as they embrace an ethic of gender specialization in the private sphere.”

The authors also note that cultural and racial shifts in demographics may have contributed to changing beliefs in the division of labor. Today, 22 percent of young adults in the U.S. are Hispanic compared to only 7 percent in 1980.

That matters, because young Hispanics (especially young Hispanic men, who prefer traditional family arrangements at higher percentages than Hispanic women) are more likely to embrace a traditional division of family and work responsibilities than other young adults.”

But since they argue that demographics are only a portion of explaining today’s millennial views, perhaps those who gasp at traditional family structures should consider the power of a woman’s choice at home and in the workforce.

Simultaneously, conservatives shouldn’t hyperventilate at the notion of supporting feminism – at least the kind that enables women to reach their full potential at work and/or at home because their pursuit of both wasn’t foisted on them. These women have made their choices, and are pursuing their happiness.