Millennials have been called many things over the years: Lazy. Entitled. Snowflakes. Unrepentant murderers of respectable chains like Applebee's.
All the while, we're dealing with sky-high student debt, stagnating wages, and increasing healthcare and housing costs, and, as a result, we're putting off things like homeownership, marriage, and childbearing.
But none of that matters according to Washington Post opinion columnist George Will in his latest column, "Listen up, millennials. There's sequence to success." The column is closely based on a report entitled "The millennial success sequence: Marriage, kids, and the 'success sequence' among young adults," co-authored by W Bradford Wilcox and published by AEI and Institute for Family Studies. No -- according to both Wilcox and Will, the record wage stagnation that millennials are dealing with isn't a matter of systemic failure -- it's because millennials "don't respect the "sequence to success," which is, in the words of Will, "insurance against poverty."
In other words: in order to become successful (or, at the very least, not be poor), a person must, in this order, get at least a high school education (but preferably attend college), get a job, get married, and have children. If we don't, well then, we're poor because of the choices we make.
It's the same tired old poverty as moral/personal failing argument.
The report is largely on two things: the economic collapse of the Bronx, which Wilcox chalks up to "family disintegration," and the interpretation that the more and more frequent millennial choice to have children before (or outside of) marriage as one of the driving forces behind millennial poverty:
These divergent paths toward adulthood are associated with markedly different economic fortunes among Millennials. Young adults who put marriage first are more likely to find themselves in the middle or upper third of the income distribution, compared to their peers who have not formed a family and especially compared to their peers who have children before marrying. In other words, even though transitions to adulthood have become much more complex in recent decades, the most financially successful young adults today continue to be those who put marriage before the baby carriage.
And this language -- that those who marry before procreating subsequently find themselves in more economically successful situations -- seems to be the foundation for the research and its supporting argument. But that, to me at least, seems to be putting the cart before the horse.
Wilcox and Will have both joined a long line of old grumps who want to blame millennials for the circumstances in which we've found ourselves.
The notion that millennials who hit milestones in this order tend to be more successful is something upon which Will and I can agree.
But here's where we differ: I don't believe this is causal. I don't think hitting milestones in a certain sequence is why people are more successful, but rather, more economically stable people (those with institutional and familial support) are economically able to do things in a more traditional manner. The burden of implied privilege here is heavy.
After all, housing prices are rising twice as fast as wages. And under the Trump presidency, housing could get more expensive, thanks to tariffs on Canadian lumber.
In terms of healthcare, the number of uninsured millennials has declined since the Affordable Care Act went into effect, but insurance is still out of reach for many in our generation. That's probably due, at least in part, to the fact that there are less full-time jobs with benefits today. And those jobs have more rigorous educational requirements than ever before.
Which leads us to the fact that, across the U.S., undergraduate student loan debt averages $31,100 (to say nothing of debt for graduate-level programs). Adjusting for inflation, the cost of education has risen, on average, 6 percent above actual inflation for years. This is not expected to let up any time soon, as the Trump administration has suggested ending federal student loan forgiveness programs and slashing the Department of Education's budget.
And one of the things Wilcox's report and Will's opinion piece both completely ignore is that, for many, marriage is a luxury and a privilege, reserved for people who are already economically stable, rather than a means of seeking economic stability with a partner as people did in the past. This is not a uniquely American phenomenon, either. Marriage is, in fact, becoming an exclusive rite of passage for the upper classes, in both the U.S. and the U.K.
As if that weren't enough to convince you that these men have an ax to grind with our generation, they also take the opportunity to discuss the supposed "selfishness" of millennials' tendency to marry for love:
One problem today, Wilcox says, is the “soulmate model of marriage,” a self-centered approach that regards marriage primarily as an opportunity for personal growth and fulfillment rather than as a way to form a family. Another problem is that some of the intelligentsia see the success sequence as middle-class norms to be disparaged for being middle-class norms.
Aside from what I see as a blatant misunderstanding of the root cause of millennials' record economic stagnation, there's something insanely tone deaf about assuming that we owe society children or anything, really, of ourselves. It's like he's saying, how dare people seek out personal fulfillment in their relationships?
That marriage, which is between two people who ostensibly love each other, is or should involve outsiders seems, to me, reminiscent of the anti-gay marriage argument: Marriage is for (natural) procreation, and if you violate that norm, you're violating one of the basic tenets of society.
We as a generation already give a lot. We work hard, for longer hours and less pay. We're less financially secure than our parents. Many millennials feel like they've been exploited by older generations -- particularly by the notion that one needs a college degree (for which we'll pay dearly in loans) in order to succeed. No wonder we're questioning other norms and taking alternative paths. Think about it in another way: we're a generation of Kids of Divorce. While the marriage rate in our generation has declined, so has the divorce rate.
Perhaps we're not following the road map previous generations have set out for us, but that doesn't necessarily mean that we've put ourselves into this dire financial situation. Rather, we're working with what we have. The moralizing message which Will and Wilcox gleefully peddle here -- that we're poor because we're not traditional -- is part of a nasty, false narrative that needs to end.