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New Evidence: The Success Sequence Works


Dr. Bradford Wilcox, Senior Fellow at the Institute for Family Studies, discusses “the millennial success sequence,” a specific sequence of life events, including marriage and children, which helps to prepare and position young adults to experience greater stability and success later in life.

Brad Wilcox discusses the success sequence

Family Policy Matters
Transcript: New Evidence: The Success Sequence Works

JOHN RUSTIN: Thanks for joining us this week for Family Policy Matters. We’ll be discussing an important topic that plays a significant role in the wellbeing and success of young adults in today’s culture. In order to achieve financial stability and success in a number of different areas of life, our guest contends that young adults would be wise to following what he refers to as “The Millennial Success Sequence.” This involves pursuing a specific sequence of life events, including marriage and children, that helps to prepare and position young adults to experience greater stability and success later in life.

Our guest today is Dr. Bradford Wilcox, Senior Fellow at the Institute for Family Studies, Director of the National Marriage Project at the University of Virginia, and a visiting scholar at the American Enterprise Institute where he conducts research on marriage, cohabitation, fatherhood, and the welfare of children. We will be discussing his new report, “The Millennial Success Sequence: Marriage, Kids, and the Success Sequence Among Young Adults.”

Dr. Wilcox, welcome to Family Policy Matters. It’s great to have you back on the show.

BRAD WILCOX: John, it’s good to be here today.

JOHN RUSTIN: According to social science, Brad, and statistics, we have now hit a point in American history where a majority of Millennials are deciding to have children before they get married, if they do get married at all. And needless to say, this is quite concerning. Is this an intentional decision to avoid or delay marriage, or is it a byproduct of our current culture and seemingly popular lifestyle choices that are being made by the Millennial generation?

BRAD WILCOX: John, it’s a great question. I think it’s important to add one caveat though to this: That is that what we’ve done is look at what Millennials who have become parents have done to date. And because Millennials are now moving into mid to late 30s, there are going to be some Millennials having their first kids from now on, and the vast majority of those Millennials have those kids in marriage. So as we kind of look at Millennials—probably, say we come back in 10 years, my guess is around probably 45 percent of Millennials will have had their kids outside of marriage. Obviously, still a big number. And the question you’re asking is why. And what I would say, there are really three things: One thing is there are a lot of Millennials who are drifting into relationships, drifting into parenthood, and they’re not being deliberate about what’s happening in their relationship. They’re not being deliberate about thinking about sex, parenthood and kids, and they’re just kind of letting things happen. And that’s a problem on a variety of levels but that’s part of the dynamic. The second thing we’re seeing though is, particularly for less educated Millennials—especially for guys, a lot of them are not in a great spot professionally or workwise. And so, both they and often their girlfriends are reluctant to go ahead and get married. And yet obviously, they’re not reluctant to go ahead and have a kid. And then the third thing we would want to point out here is that, for a number of lower income couples, our means-tested welfare system tends to penalize marriage for a substantial minority of them. And so some of them are going around thinking about what if I want to get the birth paid for through Medicaid or something else. It’s probably best for me not to get married until after that baby comes along. So that’s one of the dynamics we’ve seen in the mix, cultural, economic… combined to bring us to this predicament that we’re talking about today.

JOHN RUSTIN: Brad, what has your research discovered about the relationship between these lifestyle decisions regarding marriage and childbearing and the financial situation of young adults?

BRAD WILCOX: What we’re seeing here is that the young adults who get at least a high school degree and preferably they go to college, vocational training—whether it’s dealing with IT or whether it’s advanced manufacturing, becoming a certified nursing assistant—young adults are going to get that educational thing done first and then have full-time work, whether working 40 hours a week on something meaningful and important, and then get married, and then have kids, those are at a very low risk of poverty, only three percent in our new research. By contrasting adults who are not following that sequence—and particularly those adults who are putting baby carriage before marriage—are more likely to experience poverty, more likely to experience economic stress. And we think that’s the case because what happens oftentimes is that you’re kind of drifting into parenthood and drifting into starting a family. You often, as a couple, don’t stay together. And so, of course, that then leads to often the dads not contributing financially to the family, because he’s the one usually who leaves the household. The mom is going to be struggling more financially. And then also the guy, he’s going to be paying child support. As soon as he goes on to marry, for instance, and have a second family in a sense, he’s going to be losing a substantial share of his income every paycheck to pay for that child in a different household. So, the point I’m making here is not following in that sequence about marriage and parenthood tends to put Millennials—younger adults—in a more precarious financial position, because either dad’s not in the household or the man is paying for a child in a different household, and both of those two scenarios have obvious negative economic consequences.

JOHN RUSTIN: Brad, you talk about youth drifting into these roles as opposed to being more intentional. Why is that? What are some of the cultural circumstances that have lead Millennials to sort of just drift into these major life decisions, versus being more intentional about them.

BRAD WILCOX: I think we live in a culture—to paraphrase the Nike slogan of “Just Do It” basically—and people are living in the moment oftentimes when it comes to relationships, when it comes to childbearing, when it comes to other things. And they’re not going to have a long-term perspective where they’re either forced to or on their own terms come to realize, “Look, what I do now, what I do in six months, what happens to me in nine months from having a child, all these things have a big impact on my long-term future, and the future of my kids, or any kids that I may have. So there’s a kind of short-term view that’s sort of encouraged by the pop culture. But then also, another problem that we’re facing is today we don’t have, many times, long-term job stability. If you’re going into the workforce in the 50s or 60s, you might work for General Motors or Ford or IBM. And if you were a decent worker and you had a decent work ethic, you’d have a job for life and you’d have a sense of your future and your security. And that would make you feel more comfortable to go ahead and get married and have kids. Today, that security is often not there and people are more hesitant to go and lock in on a relationship, on a marriage, and on a family. And so, that’s just part of a tougher new reality that we have today in our society. I think that people often are more cognizant of how much they’re going to depend on their spouse. If they lose their job they can rely on their spouse or on their in-laws to help them out. And so I think today, unfortunately, you tend to see marriage, you don’t do it until you’ve got all your economic ducks in a row and, I would say, actually is recognizing that the right marriage, with the right family can be a support to you in today’s more unstable and precarious economic environment. So I just put that point, given the economic insecurity people face today, it’s even that much more to have a spouse in your corner, to have your parents in your corner, if at all possible, to have your in-laws in your corner. And that’s more likely to happen when you put a ring on it than if you live together or just date. If you find a good person, if you’re serious about them, then I think marriage becomes a very good thing to think about and actually can be security in today’s times.

JOHN RUSTIN: In speaking of this longer-term viewpoint, and I think that’s so critically important for us, it’s not just the Millennials, the young adults that we’re talking about now, but the future generations. What do your years of research tell you the consequences of these decisions and actions are going to have by young adults on the children who are born into the homes of young unmarried parents, especially in the areas of health, education, finances, and other critical factors that are such an important part of future success?

BRAD WILCOX: It’s important for everyone to realize that when you put the baby carriage after marriage you’re much more likely to stay together as a family and your kids are more likely to grow up in a stable married context. People have heard that one in two marriages end in divorce. Well, that’s no longer true, it’s closer to four in ten. And if you do things right—for instance, go to church together—your odds are down even more. So I think people need to recognize that when it comes to raising up kids, that marriage provides the most security for the next generation. And that security is important because kids are more likely to flourish when they have the financial support of their parents and the role modeling of their own father in the household.

JOHN RUSTIN: How do other factors like ethnicity, education, and employment affect the financial success of young adults regardless of their marital or parenthood status?

BRAD WILCOX: What we see in this new research is that the Success Sequence works for basically everyone. It doesn’t matter if you’re white, if you’re black, if you’re Hispanic. It doesn’t matter if you’re from a lower-income background, from an upper-income background. What we see is that people who have all the sequence of getting education, getting a full-time job, and then marrying before kids, are much more likely to be flourishing economically when they hit their late 20s and their 30s.

JOHN RUSTIN: And from your research, how do young adults who have delayed marriage and childbirth compare to their counterparts who have entered into one or both of these milestones of life earlier on?

BRAD WILCOX: That’s a complicated question in one sense, because kids are, as all of know who have kids, they are expensive and so it doesn’t really matter if you have kids in marriage or outside of marriage. When you have kids, you’re going to be spending a substantial share of your income on children. But we do find that young Millennials who are married—with or without kids, —are the ones that are most likely to be flourishing economically. And so, having that ability either to pull income or to have someone specialize in a job, also having today, frankly, the financial support, not just of your own parents, but of your in-laws, gives you important resources as well. So we do find in this new research again that Millennials who are married— with or without children—are the ones who are doing better than their peers, and that’s true for better educated and less education, for white, black and Hispanic. It’s just kind of a story for Millennials across the board that marriage matters for them financially.

JOHN RUSTIN: That is so important. Brad, what sorts of community or public policy efforts can be made to educate young people about these factors and encourage them to choose this success sequence of marriage and then children for future success?

BRAD WILCOX: John, we live in a world where college-educated Americans are doing a pretty good job of getting married, staying married and having their kids in marriage. So I think they’ve kind of gotten the message, after the divorce revolution of 70s and 80s, that maybe the best for them and their kids is to embrace a pretty conventional lifestyle for the family. That message has not really filtered down in recent years to working-class and poor Americans. And so I think, having some kind of public campaign that would talk about the importance of getting some kind of education, working stably, and then getting married, and then having kids, would be really helpful in terms of giving some ideas and some support and some encouragement to pursue the Success Sequence. And recognizing here that for people who are skeptical about this kind of idea, it actually achieves a great deal of success in recent years with public campaigns around drunken driving, public campaigns around teenage pregnancy. And if we can make progress on things like drunken driving, teen pregnancy, we can make progress on things like the Success Sequence as well.

JOHN RUSTIN: Brad, I know that this conversation is prompting our listeners to want to get more information about it. Where can they go to learn more about this topic, about your new research, and about research that you’ve done over the years on marriage, on the success sequence? And how might they be able to engage young adults and to provide information to them that will help them be encouraged and to understand the value of the Success Sequence that you talk about.

BRAD WILCOX: is a good place to go for research the Institute for Family Studies, which has been one of the co-sponsors of this new report. And we have a lot of other good items of research on the website. And they can also follow me on Twitter at Wilcoxmmp.

JOHN RUSTIN: Dr. Brad Wilcox, unfortunately we’re out of time for this week but I want to thank you so much for being with us on Family Policy Matters and for your great research and efforts to encourage young people to get married, to live successful lives, and to have children in this order. So, thank you so much.

BRAD WILCOX: John, thanks for having me on today. I appreciate the opportunity with your listeners.

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