Why Gen Y Isn’t Following the Marriage-Parenting ‘Success Sequence’

Millennials who forgo marriage are "missing opportunities," says Jennifer Cannon-Murff, president of Millennials for Marriage

By Liberty McArtor Published on July 1, 2017

Millennials who get married before having children are likely to be more successful, the American Enterprise Institute and Institute for Family Studies reported this month. But over half of millennial parents had kids first. 

“The new norm doesn’t seem to be a healthy one,” New York Times columnist David Leonhardt wrote Wednesday.

Jennifer Cannon-Murff, president of Millennials for Marriage, agrees. 

Millennials who forgo marriage are “missing opportunities to build some character and something they wouldn’t have built if they’d stayed single,” she told The Stream.

Millennials Value Parenthood Over Marriage

In 2011, Pew Research Center reported that 52 percent of millennials ranked “being a good parent” over “having a successful marriage.” Today, that seems to hold true. Fifty-five percent of Generation Y parents had their first child while single. 

Cannon-Murff believes this preference for parenthood stems from millennials’ upbringing. A high number grew up in divorced homes. They may think “I turned out just fine,” she said, and not see the value in marriage. 

As Leonhardt writes, “it’s easy to point to children who thrived without married parents and to those who struggled with married parents. But it’s worth distinguishing between exceptions and the norm.” 

Cannon-Murff also noted that Baby Boomers “put parenting at the forefront of their life.” Millennials who are close with their parents want to pour into their future kids in the same way. Since their parents didn’t make their marriage a priority, they don’t see it as an important factor in good parenting.

Opting Against the Success Sequence

Millennials “worked really hard” on their education, and now their careers, Cannon-Murff said. “They’re just getting into the rat race.” 

The AEI/IFS report outlines a “success sequence:” earning at least a high school diploma, working full time, getting married, then having kids, in that order. Millennials who follow the sequence tend to have the best financial success later on. 

Today’s young adults haven’t had the chance to see how great marriage really supports great parenting.

Millennials who have pursued higher education and are now focusing on their careers fall into that sequence — so far. The next step, marriage, is what they’re holding off on or skipping altogether. And there are consequences.

Causes and Consequences of Delayed Marriage

The financial ramifications of having children without a spouse can be harsh. According to AEI/IFS, 72 percent of millennials who had children before marriage are poor. Ninety-five percent of millennials who married first are not. The same pattern holds even when controlled for background, including income and race.

Not only are millennials having kids out of wedlock, they’re giving birth at a much lower rate than previous generations (which could adversely affect the wider economy later on). Part of this is because women are having children later in life. The average age women have their first child today has climbed to 26 from about 25 in 2000. The average marriage age for American women today is 27 and 29 for men, up from 23 and 26, respectively, in 1990. 

Often the delay is intentional. Millennials want to pay off college debt and establish themselves in their fields before settling down, whether that means children or marriage or both. 

But sometimes the delay in both marriage and childbearing is caused by a lack of eligible spouses. Women are earning more college degrees than men. As the New York Post reported in May, college-educated young women have a hard time finding compatible men in their own age bracket.

If women wait to have kids until they find a husband, they may have to pay thousands for fertility treatments or not have kids at all. So instead of waiting any longer, they have them on their own.

Married Couples: Tell Your Stories

“People who have families tend to make more,” Cannon-Murff said — something many millennials are missing out on. “They climb the corporate ladder faster, they work harder, they’re focused.”

“People who have families tend to make more.” 

Cannon-Murff said when she and her husband began having kids two years after marriage, “there was a shift in the way we thought about our future.” They worked harder because they wanted to set a good example for their children and build a good life for them, she said.

When they married, she was 21 and he was 23. A decade later, Cannon-Murff has a doctorate degree and teaches at Regent University. She said she was often pregnant or caring for a new baby when pursuing her degrees. But marriage was their starting point.

“I don’t think I could’ve gone as far in my education without the encouragement and support of this amazing guy by my side,” she posted on Millennials for Marriage’s Facebook page in May.

Cannon-Murff said one of the most powerful things people can do to promote marriage is share their story.

“I think that there is power in the personal narrative,” she said. At Millennials for Marriage, “we’re trying to tell a story that marriage is good, that it leads to success, that if you find the right person … marriage is a great place.”

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  • James

    Many Millennials see the formula as Success->Marriage->Children.

    The economy being what it is, it is more difficult for young people to be “successful” in the 20s. Biological clocks being what they are, some will take the children when they can. Marriage before success and even children before success are far greater taboos than children before marriage.

  • Rebecca

    Thank you Liberty for your observations. I am a millennial that believes that the best policy for success is to wait on children. My husband and I have a successful life because of choosing to wait. 🙂

    • Liberty McArtor

      Thanks for reading!

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