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The Success Sequence: Proven Steps

Brad Wilcox was a graduate student back when I was working at the University of Virginia. He has since become a national authority on the sociology of marriage and family and is a senior fellow at the Institute for Family Studies and a professor of sociology at the University of Virginia. So I was struck by a new report that he and his research director Wendy Wang released recently: “The Millennial Success Sequence.”

They acknowledge that millennials are taking many divergent paths into adulthood. Some, however, provide better economic outcomes. They are not trying to be morally prescriptive, “This is what you ought to do.” Rather they are simply looking at the data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics’ National Longitudinal Survey of Youth.

Here is their three-fold success formula:

  1. Graduate from high school or get a GED by your mid-twenties

  2. Work full time or work toward a college or graduate degree in your mid-twenties

  3. Marry before having any children.

Half of all millennials have either followed all three steps or are on track to do so. This “success sequence,” was so named by Brookings Institute scholars Ron Haskins and Isabel Sawhill. They found in 2008 that this is the path to adulthood that is most likely to lead toward economic success and away from poverty. Only three percent of young adults who passed through all three milestones associated with the success sequence are poor. In contrast, fifty-three percent of young adults who did not follow this sequence are living in poverty.

New Copernicans have a different view of the "American Dream" and the nature of work. They would much prefer work that marries their passions with a paycheck. They are much more likely to start with the expectation that work should reflect a triple bottom line: people, planet, and profit. As such they tend to be much more entrepreneurial and idealistic, which allows them to seek financial stability on their own terms. Their skepticism about the American economic system and the institutions that support it, does not erase their desire to make the world a better place. For many the existential assumption of stability is distorted by the memory of the 2008 financial collapse and their crushing student debt.They are not naive about the difficulties they face. Nor are they lazy. Most are working multiple jobs following a breathless pattern of multitasking that would leave most of their parents exhausted. But it is work on their terms, done in their own way. As such, the "American dream" looks very different to them. When terms like "poverty" and "success" are used, they have to be qualified by the lens of their New Copernican social imaginary. They will process this economic reality differently.

Nonetheless, it's not wise to deny reality. It was reported today that Central Magnet High School in Tennessee awarded forty-eight validictorians out of a graduating class of around 190 students. These validictorians all had to meet certain high academic requirements, so their shared honor is certainly more than the fabled “participation award.” These students were simply not pitted against one another for the single top distinction, as has been traditionally the case. At one level this seems reasonable, in that a much wider group of students are motivated to excel at the highest level. But this is not actually how the real world works—whether competing at the Olympics or applying for a job. At some point, facing adulthood means facing up to the harshness of reality.

So while we can accept divergent paths toward adulthood, paths that are markedly different from one’s parents, it is wise to pay attention to the “success sequence.” Current economic realities are difficult enough without compounding the difficult with more difficulty. A record fifty-five percent of millennial parents have put childbearing before marriage—twice as many as their parent’s generation at the same age. In doing so, longitudinal studies suggest that they are crippling their long-term prospects.

The factors favoring economic success remain true even when various factors such as education, childhood family income, race/ethnicity, sex, and intelligence are taken into consideration. These are robust lessons of reality that deserve one’s honest consideration. It’s not about what one ought to do as much as an assessment of what is the nature of social reality.

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