Is the “Graduate, Find a Job, Get Married, Have Kids” Sequence Still Relevant for Millennials?

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In the 1950s, folks had a way of doing things, gosh darn it! Not like these reprobate young people today, these so-called “Millennials!”

Now that we’ve gotten the mandatory curmudgeon-ness out of the way, let’s get serious about this “success sequence.” It was a formula easy enough for even that poor kid wearing the dunce cap in the corner to understand. Coined by the Brookings Institute, the “success sequence” goes like this this: You get at least a high school diploma, you get a full-time job, you get married, and then you have children.

In that order, too—or else you do not pass Go and do not collect $200.

Is the success sequence still relevant today, or has American society moved past such notions? Does it still correlate with class, income, and wealth?

The Study

A recent study by the Institute of Family Studies found some pretty compelling evidence that the success sequence remains extremely relevant today. It’s worth acknowledging that their mission is to bolster marriage and family, so they certainly have a horse in this race.

Now that we’ve acknowledged the “who,” let’s talk data, shall we?

The study looked at Bureau of Labor Statistics data on Millennials aged 28-34, from all socioeconomic levels.

Of the Millennials who had completed all four steps in order, 97% were not in poverty. Of those who were “on track,” having graduated at least high school and gotten a full-time job but who remain unmarried with no children, a solid 92% were not in poverty.

Related: Why America Has Ditched Homeownership to Become a Renter Nation

Contrast those numbers with the other end of the spectrum, those who did not follow the success sequence at all. A troubling 53% of them were living in poverty.


Having Children Before Marriage

Perhaps surprisingly, they found that over half—55%—of Millennial parents had their first child before getting married. For context, only 25% of Baby Boomers had children out of wedlock at that age.

Of the Millennials who married first, 95% are living above the poverty line. In an income distribution divided by thirds, 86% of them are in the middle and higher-income thirds.

Of the millennials who had their first child before getting married, 72% are living above the poverty line. Nearly half of them are in the bottom third of the income distribution.

Even among Millennials who themselves grew up in poverty, getting married before having children was correlated with far better results. An impressive 71% of those who married before children had reached the middle- or higher-income brackets. Compare that to only 41% among those who had children before marrying.

Homeownership & Marriage

While we’re getting all Leave-It-to-Beaver here, let’s talk about marriage and homeownership rates.

Did you know that marriages rates have declined among less-educated Americans, but remained largely constant for the better-educated? In fact, some analysts make the case that declining marriage rates at the lower end of the socioeconomic spectrum is a major contributor to growing income inequality.

The homeownership rate among married people is much, much higher than it is for unmarried people. How much higher? Try a homeownership rate of 78.2%, compared to the unmarried homeownership rate of 43.4%.

Sure, two incomes make it easier to qualify for a mortgage than one. But the number of unmarried cohabiters in the United States rose to 18 million last year, up 29% over the last 10 years. Roughly half of those cohabiters are millennials under 35.

Millennials make up the largest homebuyer cohort, comprising 40% of all homebuyers. In fact, Millennials prove quite enthusiastic about homeownership and real estate investing generally: Over half of young adults interested in home-buying were also interested in buying investment properties.

Why do homeownership rates matter?

Aside from the fact that this is a real estate blog, the average net worth of homeowners ($194,500) was 36 times higher than renters’ $5,400, according to the last Survey of Consumer Finances from the Federal Reserve. Lawrence Yun, chief economist for the National Association of Realtors, estimates that today’s net worth among homeowners is 45 times higher than the average net worth of renters.

Homeownership also correlates heavily with income. By one Zillow analysis a couple years back, the homeownership rate in the bottom income quintile was only 30%, compared to 87% in the highest quintile.


Paths to Success

I’m not here to proselytize or preach family values. To me, it’s not a question of morality. It’s a question of economics and sociology—the “success sequence” is part of a broader social construct designed to ensure financial stability and growth.

Frame the issues however you want, but these facts are incredibly basic:

  • High school dropouts earn less money than graduates, and college graduates earn more than high school graduates.
  • It’s easier to earn a high school or college degree before entering the workforce, getting married, and having children.
  • Getting married before ever working a full-time job ends in higher divorce rates.
  • Having children while single comes with extra challenges, such as less household income and fewer adult caregivers.

Sure, you can buy homes before getting married, have children before getting married, or get married before attaining financial stability. Some people end up being successful anyway. Look at Maria, a single mom and successful entrepreneur, or Nakeisha, another single mom buying up rental properties and protecting her neighborhood’s character.

That doesn’t mean that they’ve taken the easiest path to get there though—or the one with the highest probability of success.

Related: 10 Seemingly Harmless Habits That Sabotage Ambitious Millennials

You don’t have to follow the success sequence, but it’s a tried and true formula for early adult life. Our technology and society may be changing rapidly (look no further than disruptions like Airbnb), yet some truths seem to be timeless.

It’s great to question conventional wisdom and to consider alternative paths. When it comes to the big milestones, however, there might just be something to the way humans have done things since, well, ever.

What do you think about the data outlined above? Will the pendulum swing the other way, as we get several generations into less traditional family norms? Or is the decline of these traditional family norms a long-term structural problem in our economy and society?

Leave your thoughts below!

About Author

G. Brian Davis

G. Brian Davis is a landlord, personal finance expert, and financial independence/retire early (FIRE) enthusiast whose mission is to help everyday people create enough rental income to cover their living expenses. Through his company at, he offers free rental tools such as a rental income calculator, free landlord software (including a free online rental application and tenant screening), and free masterclasses on rental investing and passive income. He’s been obsessed with early retirement since the early 2000s (before it was “a thing”). Besides owning dozens of properties over nearly two decades, Brian has written as a real estate and personal finance expert for publishers including Money Crashers, RETipster, Think Save Retire, 1500 Days, Lending Home, Coach Carson, and countless others.


  1. Erik Whiting

    Well written piece and full of good food for thought.

    I think one of the major factors is single vs. double house-holding. A house/home is a fixed expense. Most other costs (i.e. food, clothing, etc) are variable costs because they increase in proportion to the number of people. Over time, that extra house / apartment adds up for the singles.

    So many ways that sharing household expenses add up over a lifetime. It may even be fair to say that having another adult in the house reduces splurge spending and/or costly social life impulses. I don’t have any hard data, but it’s much cheaper for my wife and me to stay home, order pizza and watch NetFlix vs. dropping $50 on a restaurant/bar tab with my single buddies. And if I buy ANOTHER drum set….my wife’s eyebrows will go up, so I don’t. (wink)

  2. Anthony Isaacson on

    Are they wealthy because they followed the sequence, or did they follow the sequence because they’re wealthy? It’s impossible to draw conclusions to answer that question based on the outcome, though I suspect it’s the latter.

    • G. Brian Davis

      Always worth asking the chicken-or-egg question, although in this case, the study did provide separate outcome stats for young adults who grew up in poverty. Check out the last paragraph of the Having Children Before Marriage section.

  3. Jon Tudor

    In general I agree with this, although my wife and I did it a bit differently. We meet in college and starting living together at 19, bought our first house at 24 (in my name only), got married at 25, and bought our first rental properties at 27. I feel we have been financially successful and are on a great path to FIRE, however I think this is because we acted as if we were married all of the years we were living together and not married. In particular, equally shouldering finances. This works well if you’re both financially responsible (even if you don’t earn the same) and are like minded about retiring early. The biggest one to watch out for is when you have a child. Have one before you are emotionally stable in your relationship and before you are financially things get much harder.

  4. John Murray

    Millennials have great problems to over come, the US Army has a hard time with this group. Only 76% of males and 63% of women complete their first 6 months of enlistment. The numbers get worse to complete their first term of enlistment. Only 59% of males will complete their first term and for women only 40%. I would assume the numbers for success in any important endeavor for this generation will improve as they mature. 30 must be the new 20. Marriage, children and responsibility must be difficult for them. Most could not make it through Basic Training, I thought it was fun. I completed my enlistment and made E-5 when I was 19 years old. A knucklehead teenager with a rifle.

  5. Sara S.

    Great article. I liked your tone. The “success sequence” is probably the easiest way to ensure future wealth. It was the plan I wanted for my life but wow I don’t think I could have done it any differently!

    First child at 23, first house at 24, first job at 25, graduated college at 26, second house at 28, third house at 30, still waiting on marriage… haha! To say I stumbled through my 20s would be an understatement.

    When you aren’t born into wealth, creativity and resourcefulness are probably the biggest skills you need in order to become wealthy. Many people who followed the traditional sequence don’t develop those skills, stay the comfortable path, and never escape the rat race. I clawed my way out. Took big risks and hustled my a$$ off because the alternative was much scarier.

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