A Friday Chat About the Sequence of Success

Featuring Billfolder Carolyn!

Photo credit: SplitShire, CC0 Public Domain.

NICOLE: Happy Friday! How has your week been?

CAROLYN: My week has been good! It’s been cold-ish here, in the 60s — everyone is in parkas, which as a native New Englander I find hilarious.

How’s your week been?

NICOLE: Very well! I hosted a Fourth of July gathering in my tiny apartment, and then got to see some fireworks.

CAROLYN: Oh fun! For the holiday I… went to work. Turns out you don’t get to take the day off just for being American.

NICOLE: Where in Kenya are you?

CAROLYN: In Nairobi. I’ve been here since the beginning of June, and will be here for another three weeks.

NICOLE: Very cool. For work?

CAROLYN: Kind of! I just finished my master’s in public health in May, so I’m doing this short-term fellowship and frantically applying to full-time jobs in the meantime.

NICOLE: That is the next step in the Sequence of Success, as George F. Will writes.

Opinion | Listen up, millennials. There’s sequence to success.

The success sequence, previously suggested in research by, among others, Ron Haskins and Isabel Sawhill of the Brookings Institution, is this: First get at least a high school diploma, then get a job, then get married, and only then have children. Wang and Wilcox, focusing on millennials ages 28 to 34, the oldest members of the nation’s largest generation, have found that only 3 percent who follow this sequence are poor.

CAROLYN: Man, I was really set on having a baby, like tomorrow!

NICOLE: So you said you had some… thoughts… about this op-ed.

CAROLYN: Yes, I definitely have some thoughts.

In a lot of ways, this article is just like every other article telling Millennials how to live our lives just like the Baby Boomers, or whatever.

But for this one in particular, I found it really curious that the columnist never mentioned the difference between correlation and causation. Like sure, maybe the reason an individual is poor is because they had a baby in high school — but maybe people who have low access to contraception are measurably different from those who have ready access!

(I think this may be addressed in the article the piece links to, but even if so, I think it’s misleading to not mention it.)

NICOLE: He doesn’t really go into why people might not be following the Sequence, either. Are there available jobs? Are there available partners?

CAROLYN: Exactly — he really rags on the “soulmate” model of marriage, but personally, I think I’d prefer some financial instability to being trapped in a loveless marriage.

NICOLE: One Washington Post commenter rightfully notes:

The U.S. government deliberately pursued black males who used even the most pablum drugs like marijuana, and set up a prosecutorial system under (Will’s and Murray’s admired) Richard Nixon that ensured that black men would be imprisoned at five to ten times the rates as white men, and encouraged states to disenfranchise any person who had been convicted of a felony — meanwhile making coke use a misdemeanor for whites and crack cocaine use a felony for blacks.

This affects marriage rates, for starters. And job rates.

CAROLYN: Not to mention discrimination baked into housing, which significantly impacts wealth as well.

NICOLE: Exactly. Even if somebody wants to follow the Sequence, that doesn’t mean that everything will fall in place in the right order.

CAROLYN: I think one of his main points is that since poverty is (apparently) due to bad choices, there should be no social safety net.

Which, even if his theory is true, I strongly disagree with. What about all the children born into these families (…out of wedlock)? Even if their parents somehow “deserve” poverty, the kids certainly don’t.

NICOLE: I don’t think anyone deserves poverty!

CAROLYN: I agree!!

NICOLE: He also has this thing about marriage coming AFTER a job, but historically, it’s often come before the job, right? Or concurrently with the job?

CAROLYN: Or instead of a job, if you’re a lady!

NICOLE: Well, marriage IS the job, if you’re a lady. 😉

CAROLYN: True story.

NICOLE: But all those movies where the young man says “I can finally marry my high school sweetheart now that I can tell her father I’m employed” have given me a specific idea about the past. So even his historical fantasy is slightly inaccurate.

CAROLYN: I think most of people’s ideas of how things used to be in the “good old days” before we Millennials ruined everything are largely inaccurate.

NICOLE: YES YES YES. And then he goes and quotes Nathanial Hawthorne telling young people to listen to their elders, whose most famous book is about A WOMAN WHO BROKE THAT SEQUENCE.

CAROLYN: Well, things didn’t work out so well for Hester Prynne, if I remember high school correctly…

NICOLE: No, but we were meant to sympathize with her, right?

CAROLYN: Just think of where she’d be if she’d finished high school before getting that job!

NICOLE: Hahahahahahahahahaha!

CAROLYN: I think that I agree with Hawthorne in calling guys like this blockheads:

Hawthorne recommended consulting “respectable old blockheads” who had “a death-grip on one or two ideas which had not come into vogue since yesterday-morning.” Ideas such as getting an education, a job and a spouse before begetting children.

NICOLE: I guess my last quibble with this op-ed is about this data point:

Eighty-six percent of the Wang-Wilcox millennials who put “marriage before the baby carriage” have family incomes in the middle or top third of incomes. Forty-seven percent who did not follow the sequence are in the bottom third.

Who did Wang-Wilcox survey? I could pull up plenty of Billfold articles about young, struggling Millennial families.

CAROLYN: True! I think this article only features on the poor/not poor dichotomy — but you can be legally “not poor” and still really struggling.

NICOLE: “Middle income” isn’t that high, and it hasn’t risen much in the past 30 years.

CAROLYN: I was also surprised by how many commenters seemed to agree with him — I didn’t make it too far down, but it seems like it’s just a lot of people hating on Millennials. I expected to see at least some disagreement!

NICOLE: Well, that must mean it’s time to turn it over to the Billfold commenters and see what they think!

CAROLYN: Excited to hear what everyone has to say!

Support The Billfold

The Billfold continues to exist thanks to support from our readers. Help us continue to do our work by making a monthly pledge on Patreon or a one-time-only contribution through PayPal.