In my post the other day I suggested that, when it comes to children’s health, mothers’ health is a bigger issue than mothers’ (advancing) age when they give birth. I was motivated to post it by the widespread discussion of Judith Shulevitz’s essay in the New Republic, “How Older Parenthood Will Upend American Society” — discussion that has continued with today’s On Point (which I haven’t heard yet), including the author Elizabeth Gregory, who has written Ready: Why Women Are Embracing the New Later Motherhood (which I haven’t read yet).
In the comments, several people (Reeve Vannamen and relfal) brought up the issue of later births in the olden days (before 1970). We need to think about two different issues: having first children at a later age, and having any (or many) children at a later age. For some questions of children’s health – especially the sperm-mutation issue with autism – I don’t think it matters: an older-age birth is an older age birth. The same goes for the angst over whether children will know their grandparents, whether parents will be too old to take them to soccer practice, and so on.
On the other hand, “starting a family” at an older age (because, remember, it’s not a “family” until you have kids), is a different issue, with its own implications for total fertility rates, the age composition of the population, etc.
Both having any children and having first children at older ages have been increasing in recent decades, but having any children at older ages is not historically unprecedented. Here are the birth rates for women ages 40-44, from 1940 to 2011, along with the percentage of all children born to those women from 1960-2010:
Sources: Birth rates 1940-1969, 1970-2010, 2011; Percent of births 1960-1980, 1980-2008.
Birth rates to women ages 40-44 are still substantially lower than they were in the olden days. So the number of kids whose parents will be over 60 when the kids come back to live with them after college is lower now despite an increase for 30 years.
On the other hand, the percentage of kids born to older mothers has surpassed those rates, because these are more often first or second, rather than third or fourth or fifth children. Put another way, the chance that women will have their first, and possibly only, baby at an older age has increased since 1960. While the overall birth rate for older women is still lower than it was in 1960, the first-birth rate is much higher. Here is the birth rate among women with no previous births, for those aged 35, 40 and 45, from 1960 to 2005:
Source: Table 4 on this page.
In 1960, only 4% of women who reached age 35 without having a baby had one that year. They probably weren’t just delaying their childbearing intentionally or putting off finding a mate while they pursued their careers. On the other hand, by 2005 almost 9% of those who reached age 35 without having a baby had one that year. The late first birth has become much more common.
Now if you go back to the promo blurb for On Point, you see how the issues are jumbled together:
American parents are having kids old and older. Look around. Are those two that child’s parents? Or its grandparents? It is very often hard to know these days. In many ways, this has been liberating. Twenty-somethings with a child-free, diaper-free decade of youth. People with time and space to start careers. But there is a price, and it’s becoming clearer. Older parents juggling kid’s soccer and their own aches and pains. Kids who won’t know their grandparents. Parents who won’t know their grandkids. And a baby bust.
The hardships faced by older parents are nothing new, but parents used to have more kids around when they went through them. It’s good to keep an eye on the issues separately.
Note: there is some more background and analysis in my working paper: here.