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?
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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!