Growing numbers of young adults across America — including here in Utah — are moving into adulthood without a durable connection to two benchmarks strongly connected to human well-being: work and marriage.
Taking the second benchmark first, a record-high 25% of 40-year-olds in the United States were never married as of 2021, according to new data from Pew Research Center. That compares to 5% of never-married 40-year-olds in 1980. And in Utah, the marriage rate has fallen more than 15% since 2012 alone. Put simply, the necessary (though not sufficient) precursor to family stability is losing ground.
As for work, there has been a decline in the share of young men engaged in full-time work in Utah, much like the rest of the United States. The share of men ages 20-40 who worked full time for the whole year fell by 4 percentage points over two decades, from 91% in 2000 to 87% just prior to the pandemic.
These trends are worrisome because work and marriage are necessary for the economic and family security that advances the financial, social and emotional welfare of young adults and, just as important, any children that they have. Of course, many single adults in Utah are employed and desire marriage. They are unmarried for reasons outside of their control.
But some who can work full time choose not to and remain unmarried by choice. One reason for this may be that they do not know or sufficiently value how much economic and family security matter for their welfare.
What is the ‘success sequence’?
Research tells us that education, work and marriage — especially marriage prior to having children — are crucial to realizing the American dream and achieving happiness. The clearest path to achieve this for young people is by following the steps of the “success sequence.” This three-pronged sequence encourages young adults to get at least a high school degree, work full time in their 20s and, if they have children, marry first.
Although young men and women in Utah are more likely to follow the sequence than their peers across the nation, we have witnessed an erosion of commitment to the latter two steps even in the Beehive State.
Why does this matter? Simply because those who fail to follow the success sequence are more likely to experience poverty and less likely to realize the American dream as they move into their late 20s and early 30s. We know, for instance, that 97% of young adults who get at least a high school degree, work full time and marry before having children avoid poverty in their late 20s and early 30s. And 86% of them reach the middle class or higher at this point in their lives. The power of the success sequence to protect more than 9 in 10 from poverty includes Black and Hispanic young adults, as well as young adults who lack a college degree or who were raised in a low-income household or nonintact family.
Young people deserve to know about the success sequence and how it can transform their lives. And educated, working single adults who desire marriage before having children deserve the confidence that comes from knowing they are on a successful life path. It’s not unreasonable to envision a future where all young people know the financial and emotional well-being associated with properly sequencing and structuring the critical life decisions of education, work and family life.
A vision for the ‘success sequence’
Toward that end, we propose three policy reforms as initial steps toward accomplishing this vision: Incorporating the success sequence into schools across Utah, encouraging premarital education and commissioning a public service announcement campaign on the benefits of the sequence.
On the first reform, school districts could create curriculum models sharing the economic and social outcomes associated with the success sequence to incorporate as a unit in relevant middle school and high school courses. Alternatively, the Utah State Board of Education could incorporate a family life standard into curriculum standards — perhaps as part of the financial literacy requirement.
With the second reform, couples desiring to marry should be encouraged to invest in premarital education to strengthen the foundation of their marriage and reduce the risk of divorce, for their own sake as well as that of their potential children. Research shows that premarital education goes a long way toward improving relationship skills and reducing the risk of divorce. While Utah already has an official policy of encouraging premarital education — including a discount on the cost of marriage licenses for couples who complete counseling — more can be done.
Specifically, the Utah Marriage Commission, as part of its ongoing operations, should make available online premarital education courses that incorporate the success sequence. It should also keep a list for the public of other premarital education counseling resources in the state. This will empower newly forming families to teach their future children about the life success produced by following the success sequence.
This leads to the third reform: The Utah Legislature should fund an ongoing media campaign to help adolescents and teens, as well as dating and engaged couples, understand the value of the success sequence for their own financial well-being. For the latter group, the campaign should also make them aware of premarital counseling resources and their value as well as provide them with instructions on how to take advantage of the marriage license discount. The Utah Office of Families or the Utah Marriage Commission could be well positioned to execute this media campaign.
Targeting this campaign toward adolescents and teens can help inspire them to focus less on the barriers to their future well-being and more on the power they have to build a better life for themselves through education, work and marriage. More generally, this campaign would complement the first reform by bolstering what young people learn about the success sequence in school.
Taken together, these steps would go a long way toward educating Utah’s youth regarding the value of the success sequence. This campaign could solidify the Beehive State’s reputation as not just an economic powerhouse, but a place where families thrive.
Brad Wilcox, a professor of sociology at the University of Virginia and director of the National Marriage Project, is the Future of Freedom Fellow at the Institute for Family Studies and a visiting scholar at the Sutherland Institute. Derek Monson is chief growth officer at the Sutherland Institute. David Bass is the director of communications for the Institute for Family Studies.