‘You should wait until you are older to date.” Growing up in a working-class family in China, I learned this at an early age. Like many Asian parents, my mother stressed the importance of working hard and getting a good education before beginning a family.
Having a child outside marriage never crossed my mind. In the small city where I grew up, it isn’t done. Even today, less than 4% of births in China are out of wedlock, and the same is true in India, Japan, and South Korea. For the vast majority of young adults in Asia, the path to success clearly runs through education, work, and marriage—in that order. Families, schools, media and society at large all reinforce that message.
A similar path to success for young adults exists in America. Brookings scholars Ron Haskins and Isabel Sawhill call it the “success sequence”: getting at least a high-school diploma, working, and then marrying before having children—again, in that order. But the message isn’t much discussed on this side of the Pacific—and when it is, it’s controversial. Liberals often dismiss it as a right-wing notion. They shouldn’t. Following the success sequence is associated with a much lower chance of being poor and much better odds of realizing the American Dream.
Tracking a cohort of young adults from their teenage years to early adulthood in the National Longitudinal Survey of Youth, sociologist W. Bradford Wilcox and I recently tested how well the three success sequence “steps” work among the millennial generation. We found that at ages 28 to 34, 53% of millennials who had failed to complete all three steps were poor. The poverty rate dropped to 31% among Millennials who completed high school, 16% among those who had a diploma and a full-time job, and 3% for Millennials who also put marriage before the baby carriage. Among childless and unmarried Millennials 28 to 34 who followed the education and work steps, the poverty rate was 8%.