Millennials and the Success Sequence

Go to school. Get married. Have children.

This is known as the “success sequence.” But among younger generations, who often meander along the path to full adulthood, this notion has fallen on hard times. Is a winding path to career and family a generational trend charting a different path to well-being? Or is the ancient path wiser? 

According to a new study by Wendy Wang and W. Bradford Wilcox of the Institute for Family Studies (IFS), the old way is best. Here are their key findings, quoted directly from their summary, concerning millennials and the effectiveness of the success sequence: 

  • Millennials are much more likely to flourish financially if they follow the “success sequence”—getting at least a high school degree, working full-time, and marrying before having any children, in that order.

  • While 55 percent of 28- to 34-year-old millennial parents had their first child before marriage, the vast majority of millennials who married before having any children are now steering clear of poverty and appear to be headed toward realizing the American dream. Additionally, 95 percent of millennials who married first are not poor, compared to 72 percent who had children first.

  • Even millennials from low-income families are more likely to flourish if they married before having children: 71 percent who married before having children made it into the middle or higher end of the income distribution by the time they are age 28–34. By comparison, only 41 percent of millennials from lower-income families who had children first made it into the middle or higher end of the distribution when they reached ages 28–34.

An executive summary of the study is available here, as is access to the full report.

There have been criticisms of this study (as is often the case for any study), including that there are exceptions among those who do follow the success sequence. These criticisms are noted by National Review writer Robert Vergbruggen. Verbruggen notes that Wang and Wilcox’s report includes a section on policy implications for lawmakers and government officials. Verbruggen states, “The government has a limited ability to change our decision-making, especially when it comes to decisions involving marriage and kids. But Wang and Wilcox have provided solid evidence that those decisions do, in fact, matter when it comes to whether individuals thrive in modern America.”

Policy may be helpful, but Verbruggen is right: it can be limited. The larger moral and ethical questions remain. Why get married? Why have children at all? What difference will a career make?

Churches have resources to answer these questions, both biblically and theologically. There are good reasons to commit oneself to a job or a field, and to do the work well, not only for the sake of excellence but to the glory of God. Marriage is a good that mysteriously points to the relationship between Christ and the church. And children are a blessing, even as challenging as parenting might be, that teach us a great deal about the parental love of God as well as the requisite virtues necessary for loving the stranger who comes to us in the person of a child.

The IFS study shows us that there is a path to follow that will lead to overall stability and human flourishing. But it is the preaching of the Word of God that provides a greater context within which millennials might discover that the “success sequence” is not an end in itself but rather a means of wisdom grounded in the wisdom of God. Conveying that wisdom is a discipleship challenge, but one that church leaders can take up as a way of blessing.