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In 2009, Brookings Institution scholars Ron Haskins and Isabel Sawhill proposed a path into adulthood. This path, called the "success sequence," is most likely to lead toward economic success and away from poverty. This sequence includes finishing at minimum a high school education, getting a job, followed by marriage and then having children. Since proposing this path, there has been no real test to see if that approach applies to today's young adults.

Researchers Brad Wilcox, senior fellow at the Institute for Family Studies, and Wendy Wang, director of research at the Institute for Family Studies and former senior researcher at Pew Research Center, thought it would be important to measure the impact of the success sequence messaging on millennials. Their recently released findings reveal some interesting data about millennial behavior regarding education, employment, marriage and family.

According to the study, a record 55 percent of millennial parents (ages 28-34) have put childbearing before marriage. This indicates that today's young adults take increasingly divergent paths toward adulthood when it comes to family formation. These divergent pathways are associated with markedly different economic fortunes among millennials.

"We found that 97 percent of millennials who followed the success sequence are not poor and are in the middle-income track by age 30," says Wilcox. "Based on every indicator, from our perspective, the success sequence is still quite relevant and compelling."

Fully 86 percent of young adults who moved into marriage first have family incomes in the middle or top third compared to only 53 percent of millennials who put childbearing before marriage. For young adults who are unmarried and childless, 73 percent have family incomes in the middle or upper third of the income distribution.

The pattern holds true for racial and ethnic minorities, as well as young adults in lower-income families.

  •  76 percent of African-American and 81 percent of Hispanic young adults who married first are in the middle or upper third of the income distribution, along with 87 percent of whites.
  •  71 percent of millennials who grew up in the bottom third of the income distribution and married before having a baby have moved up to the middle or upper third of the distribution as young adults.

"Some have questioned if the success sequence is all about education and work, with marriage being an afterthought," Wilcox says. "Are education and work the only pieces really driving the story?

"Based on our findings, the link between marriage and economic success among millennials is robust. Compared with the path of having a baby first, marrying before children more than doubles young adults' odds of being in the middle or top income tiers. This holds true even, after adjusting for education, childhood family income, employment status, race/ethnicity, sex and respondents' scores on the Armed Forces Qualifying Test (AFQT), which measures intelligence and knowledge of a range of subjects."

Findings from the study also show:

  •  A stunning 97 percent of millennials who follow the success sequence are NOT poor by the time they reach their prime young adult years (ages 28-34).
  •  31 percent of millennials who obtained at least a high school degree (but didn't follow the work and marriage steps by their mid 20s) are in poverty when they reach ages 28 to 34.

According to Wilcox, data that track adults across the transition to adulthood indicate that the path most likely to be associated with realizing the American Dream is one guided by the success sequence. Given the importance of education, work and marriage — even for a generation that has taken increasingly varied routes into adulthood — policymakers, business leaders and civic leaders should work to advance public policies and cultural changes to make this sequence both more attainable and more valued.

Based on this report, it appears that millennials are beginning to see the value in marriage and how the timing of their decisions impacts their ability to achieve their long-term goals.

Julie Baumgardner is president and CEO of family advocacy nonprofit First Things First. Email her at