Will older parenthood upend society?

There are so very many things to say about this article and so little time to say them. But: I do think it’s valuable to discuss the reality of fertility and age-related health issues. Certainly an uptick in diagnoses of things like ADHD, autism, etc have contributed to their soaring rates, but there may also be environmental factors, including fertility treatments and older parents. And we know that chromosomal abnormalities are significantly more common in pregnancies conceived by older people. It is important to talk about all of that. At the same time, there are myriad benefits to having children later. Children of older parents tend to do better in school. Older parents tend to spend more time (and more quality time) with their kids. Children born to older parents are more likely to be raised in economically stable households with lower divorce rates. Those are all good things, and unsurprising — on average, adults make better parents than people who are barely adults, whose brains haven’t finished fully developing, who lack life experience, and who lack stability in their job, relationship and finances.

A couple of things could make this all better: First, improve social welfare systems that would help younger parents who don’t have the benefits of stability and accumulated wealth. Second, structure the workplace so that women who want to have kids earlier can do that and not risk total career derailment. Third, invest in research of fertility drugs and procedures, as well as care for children with a variety of disabilities and health issues.

I’d like to think that we could totally restructure our work environments to make them match up with our biology. But I’m not sure that’s possible. And we also can’t force women into early childbearing, especially now that women see there are many more options and that an unencumbered life can be awfully fun through your 20s. As one of childless women close to hitting 30, there is literally not a single government policy that would convince me to have a baby tomorrow. I’m not sure that’s a bad thing. I’m not sure that a two-parent multiple-children family is actually the best social model, or a model everyone should want.

About Jill

Jill began blogging for Feministe in 2005. She has since written as a weekly columnist for the Guardian newspaper and in April 2014 she was appointed as senior political writer for Cosmopolitan magazine.
This entry was posted in Gender, Health, Media & Media Literacy, Pregnancy, Reproductive Rights. Bookmark the permalink.

38 Responses to Will older parenthood upend society?

  1. Colin says:

    I wonder how age of parenthood has moved in relation to life expectancy, i.e. how old will the average person be when their mother/father dies? As with age of parenthood, it’s no good to just look at average life expectancy, because there’s such a massive gulf between rich and poor on this score.

  2. Dominique says:

    How about making it easier for men to take parental leave earlier on in their careers? There’s that part too. They should invest in their kids and not risk career derailment either. I think there’s an old saw that says if men got pregnant, they would get two years paid leave at 150 % of their salaries.

    All in all, however, I don’t think it’s a bad thing for women to not have kids at all. A lower fertility rate is not a recipe for disaster in industrialized countries where children are expensive, contribute nothing to the household and may not even have jobs once they grow up. Increased productivity lowers the need for workers. As for social services: technology will have to step in to care for the aging population; and moreover, the retirement age is likely to be pushed back considerably, since 65 is the new 40. People are not just living longer, they are healthier than ever before. So: we don’t really need more kids. We need a different social contract and innovative ways of dealing with aging and increased rates of age-related illnesses. Depopulation would be a good thing in the world, imo.

    • Unree says:

      Agree with everything Dominique said, except that I have doubts about one phrase: “technology will have to step in to care for the aging population.” Maybe so … but at least as of now we have big gaps between what people need and what technology can do for them. I’m thinking about loyalty + advocacy, responsiveness to changed conditions, and empathy.

      But it’s totally right for us to adapt to a world with a higher average age and fewer children.

    • konkonsn says:

      As for social services: technology will have to step in to care for the aging population…We need a different social contract and innovative ways of dealing with aging and increased rates of age-related illnesses.

      I kind of wish technology wasn’t the go-to in this age for some of these things, but I realize we jump to that for a lot of jobs/experiences it seems people don’t want to do. The reason we don’t want to do certain jobs is usually because the pay and work environment suck. (I’m not trying to rag on you specifically, btw, so I hope it doesn’t come off like that).

      Making caretaking a physically rewarding career would solve several of these issues, the biggest one being that you don’t need a family to insure you’ll have someone to connect with and look after you in your twilight years.

      I mean, even these days, that’s not a guarantee. This is a personal issue for me as my grandmother, who has dementia, is living with us because my father is retired and I’m currently part-time, and his selfish siblings aren’t helping us at all.

  3. vanessa says:

    having kids is such a deeply personal choice that I think can feel oddly impersonal–like its just another thing to tick off, almost. But its so goddamn fraught. I am 27 and trying to get pregnant using a known sperm donor. Partly I’m doing it because I’m ready, but also I am definitely doing it because it feels wayyyy too risky to wait. It really IS harder to get pregnant the older you get–so there are great outcomes for those kids who are born to older parents, but then you have lots of parents who can’t get pregnant and end up in the waiting-for-a-baby adoptive hell. And wanting to get pregnant and not having it happen is one of the most searingly painful things I’ve experienced–and I say this as someone who has only tried for 7 months!

    I have no idea where I am going with this comment. Except that I feel like there’s a lot of facts to balance. It IS harder to have a baby when you are older. It’s also harder on your career to have a baby when you are younger. I think it goes back to the question of what having it all looks like for each person.

  4. Donna L says:

    wanting to get pregnant and not having it happen is one of the most searingly painful things I’ve experienced–and I say this as someone who has only tried for 7 months!

    My ex and I tried for 8 months, when we were both 33, and it was torture — so much hope every month, and then so much disappointment. 7 or 8 months can seem like a very long time. (And then one dose of Clomid, and boom. Did it cause any problems in our son? Who knows? I don’t really think he has any mental or physical “issues” that he doesn’t share with one or both of his parents.)

  5. EG says:

    I don’t think there’s anything wrong with older parenting, if it’s something freely chosen by the parents. I do think there’s something wrong with a society set up so that people who would not prefer it are pushed into older parenting, and a society set up around a two-parent model where one parent is a full-time caretaker and that has almost no social safety net is a society that is not giving people full, free choices.

  6. Jennifer says:

    Fact check on trisomy prevalence–the article claims that “The risk that a pregnancy will yield a trisomy rises from 2–3 percent when a woman is in her twenties to 30 percent when a woman is in her forties.” On all trisomies (not combined), it doesn’t look to me like it’s anything close to this: http://www.fetalultrasound.com/online/text/31-014.htm

    For Down Syndrome, the most common “The risk of having a child with Down syndrome increases in a gradual, linear fashion until about age 30 and increases exponentially thereafter (Figure 1).8 The risk of having a child with Down syndrome is 1/1,300 for a 25-year-old woman; at age 35, the risk increases to 1/365. At age 45, the risk of a having a child with Down syndrome increases to 1/30. ” http://www.aafp.org/afp/2000/0815/p825.html

    One in thirty is 3.33%, which is a lot different than 30%–if the author couldn’t get this right, what else is wrong with this article?

    • Bagelsan says:

      Good fact check. It’s still a huge jump in trisomy, but it’s not a huge number of kids with it even then.

      • Lolagirl says:

        Seriously, that’s a pretty huge discrepency in the way those stats were reported in the article. Thanks for the catch.

        And this is where I tend to get myself into trouble irl. Because with my last pregnancy (at age 38 and already having had 3 kids) I was intent on getting an amniocenticis to check for any chrmosomal abnormalities. Because I was resolute in the decision to not go forward with the pregnancy if anything did come up in the amnio results. Maybe I’ll even get called an ableist here on Feministe, but I knew what my personal limitations were wrt to going forward with such a pregnancy and how it would impact our family. My body, my choice, and the spouse also knew to support me in whatever choice it was that I decided to make.

        The whole topic of when and whether or not to reproduce is just such a complicated one. We can try to plan and map out how we will go about living our lives, but so often what choices we actually have to make are limited by additional factors that are completely outside our personal control anyway.

      • Chataya says:

        You can’t be ableist against a non-person, so anyone who accuses you of that here is an asshole. Or elsewhere, for that matter.

      • hellkell says:

        I don’t think you were/are ableist at all. You made the right decision for you.

  7. archie says:

    I’m not sure that a two-parent multiple-children family is actually the best social model, or a model everyone should want.

    Maybe my perspective as an older parent (well, not too old, but you know, definitely on the downhill side, past the mid-point, etc.) of two rambunctious boys informs this comment. Little kids take a lot of time and energy – physical and emotional – to raise. It is very physical and fatiguing work, at least for those of us in our 40’s. If single parenting is the alternative model to two parent, multiple-children families with shared responsibility for child raising, then I’m pretty sure that the latter is a better model, both for parents and children. The old proverb that Hilary quoted – “it takes a village to raise a child” has more than a bit of truth to it.

    • EG says:

      I take your point, insofar as taking care of a toddler now, when I’m 36, is massively more exhausting than it was ten years ago. But not only is single parenthood not the only alternative to the nuclear family, single parenthood as it is currently conceived of in the US is not the only way to do single parenthood.

  8. A.Y. Siu says:

    Mid-thirties here. Couldn’t even imagine having the energy now to keep up with a small child. Oddly (though I never would have wanted to be a parent at that age) I could keep up with small children when I was a teenager.

  9. Kathleen says:

    I am a 41 year old single mom of a two year old, and I wouldn’t do a thing differently. That being said, I do think about the fact that if my daughter makes the same sorts of choices I did I’ll be a first-time grandma at… 78. Hopefully I’ll have the arm strength to hold a newborn, but once s/he’s a 30 pound 2 year old and I’m 80? Yikes!

    Something that these articles always make me think about, especially with the way they *always* raise the spectre of disability as some kind of horrible boogeyman (btw, great catch on the stats, Jennifer) is how much they sort of reflect our weirdo culture of meritocracy: that everything is scaleable on a single scale of “bestness”, and that given the right information, willpower, determination, stratergery, and so forth one can come out in the 98th percentile of anything, including childrearing. It’s such a sad and vicious way of looking at creating and nurturing new little people.

    • Beatrice says:

      When it comes to discussions about late parenthood, I think taking into consideration greater possibility of the child having a disability can’t be neglected. That information should be accurate, of course, so if something in the article was wrong that’s bad. But it definitely should be mentioned.

      • Beatrice says:

        I shouldn’t have put that “if” there, since it was already said that the numbers were wrong. Sorry.

      • Jillpoke says:

        It’s hard to avoid not knowing the risks of having a child with a disability, especially the first time you go to the doctor and get “AMA” stamped on your files. I was quite educated about the risks and benefits of having children at an advanced maternal age.

        Being an older parent isn’t for everyone. Both my husband and I both agree that being a couple years younger would have been preferable, but that just wasn’t in the cards for us.

  10. Ashley says:

    I’m 28, had my first kid at 25. Despite all the teeth gnashing about women who wait to become parents, I’ve gotten plenty of comments about how I’m “so young” to be a parent or how you shouldn’t have kids until at least 30 because no one is ready until 30.

    Or, women can’t win. Ever.

    • Beatrice says:

      Or, women can’t win. Ever.


    • (BFing)Sarah says:

      Me and you both, Ashley (as in: I had my first at 26). Can’t ever win. The look I get when I tell people I have two children makes me feel like a teenaged parent (I also look younger than I am). People just love to judge women about their reproductive choices.

  11. Bagelsan says:

    I think it’s a case of biology not catching up with society (or society not sufficiently compensating for biology?) Ideally in the it-takes-a-village scenario young parents would be able to have babies early (and often, if they so desire!) while still having the attendant wisdom of older relatives and neighbors on hand, giving those babies the good outcomes of those raised by older parents. Being able to have babies young and not pay a social/financial penalty for it would be better than forcing a choice between fiscal and physical realities — if I could have a child young and then be able to count on a ton of help with it the prospect would be a lot more appealing. As it is, many women are forced to wait and wait until they can function solo, and then role the genetically-loaded dice .

  12. Moebius says:

    Children of older parents tend to do better in school. Older parents tend to spend more time (and more quality time) with their kids. Children born to older parents are more likely to be raised in economically stable households with lower divorce rates.

    Not to be over-critical, but have these correlations been checked against correlation with other factors? Because I’d guess that older parents usually come from high-income families: They far more frequently go to university, get their degree, start a career and only then it’s the time for children. On the other hand if you start working at 18 you’ll start thinking about children rather in your twenties than in your thirties.
    And of course we all know that children of high-income families tend to do better in school and (tautology alert) are more likely to be raised in economically stable households with lower divorce rates.
    If the data were not checked against correlation with other factors, their significance and informative value may well be small or zero.
    Just my 2 cents.

    • Dawnbreaker says:

      You’re right, but this is what the post actually says! It pretty much boils down to (though, of course, this is a generalisation):
      Younger parents = greater biological advantage
      Older parents = greater social advantage

      It doesn’t really change the main point, though, which is that an ideal situation would promote social support for younger parents, and medical/biological support for older parents, to balance out and improve things for everyone.

      • Moebius says:

        It doesn’t really change the main point, though, which is that an ideal situation would promote social support for younger parents, and medical/biological support for older parents, to balance out and improve things for everyone.

        I’m so with you there – our society is quite double-faced when it comes to children and supporting parents. On the one hand every influential person can’t repeat often enough that “children are our future”, but when it comes to supporting families, this conviction seems to vanish…

        It pretty much boils down to (though, of course, this is a generalisation):
        Older parents = greater social advantage

        Yes, but is the reason for the social advantage actually the parents being older? Meaning, if a lower-income family waits with raising children until they’re thirty, how many of those advantages will actually manifest? And how many won’t, because they have nothing to do with age and everything with class?

        I’ll give an example. Let’s imagine for the sake of argument that in a certain town all lower-income families had their children in their 20s and all upper-income families had theit children in their 30s. Now scientist A runs some statistics in that town and finds out that children whose parents had them in their 30s score statistically 10 points better in a certain test and says “older parents have smarter children”. But scientist B takes a closer look and finds out that generally children of upper-income families score statistically 9 points better in the test than children of lower-income families. Since the children that were tested by scientist A are either from lower-income and younger parents or upper-income and older parents, B can deduct that 9 of the 10 points advantage stem from the children not having older, but richer parents, and that the parents’ age makes a meager 1-point difference.

        So I don’t know whether the scientists who made the study the article mentioned also looked for other factors like class etc and accounted for that in their calculations. If not, their numbers don’t tell that much.

  13. Goldenblack says:

    I’ve had a kid (singular) late in life in my late thirties. The biggest benefit, for me, has actually been having mature adults (childless or not) around who do not Panic About Babies and are able to go ‘Oh, you can’t go to this because of TinyPerson, fair enough’ or even better ‘Hey, I really want to go to this with you, so I’ve had a chat with Mutual Friend We Trust and TinyPerson is gonna have a riot with them while we have fun’.

    For me, it was the right choice. What I want, I think, is for everyone to get to make their ‘informed right choice’ – to be child free, to have one at twenty, to have one later, informed, and without weird societal doom-saying.

    The stats on disorders do remind me of what gets nicknamed Listeria Hysteria here. A five times as much chance of XYZ is a huge jump in multiplication terms, but not necessarily in actual outcome – I was warned that the chances of contracting Listeria from one of the salads I like were twice as often. It turned out to be twice as much as sub 0.0003 percent is not much. The fact is, as raised by someone above, all Advanced Maternal Age mothers where I am have it drilled into you THAT YOU ARE OLD and YOU ARE TAKING A RISK and YOU ARE OLD and…every. Visit. This was reiterated. Some of it was important – it was worth the preparation to know about possible outcomes. But after a while, some of it began to feel like punishment. The hospitals in my area automatically characterised me as ‘very high risk’ due to age and mostly refused to take me.

    • Kathleen says:

      Interesting. I had my kid in Canada and wasn’t considered risky anything because I was under 40 (just barely — I delivered at 39). Anecdotally, based on my sample of me, this makes me think that socialized healthcare systems might be calmer about everything because they are all about first, serving everybody (I know, I know, there are exceptions but *generally*) — they have to take all the late 30s ladies anyway — and, second, limiting low-probability testing / treatment because of cost. So they aren’t going to hype up lots of intensive monitoring for late 30s ladies who have private insurance, but there is an incentive to do so in the States.

      • debbie says:

        Things do tend to be a little more relaxed in Canada, but I think it has a lot more to do with not being as litigious a society as the US, and courts being unwilling to make huge damage awards. As a result, there is far less pressure on doctors and hospitals to follow procedures that may make no sense for an individual patient but cover their asses if there is a lawsuit down the road.

      • Kathleen says:

        Makes sense too.

      • Storyphile says:

        Gave birth at 39 in Canada too. I was considered “high risk”, but for reasons in addition to my age. It was my first child, and I had pre-existing high blood pressure. It was the whole combination that made me “high risk”. No one freaked out about it really, I just got an offer for a referral to an ob/gyn just in case instead of my GP doing it all. (lucky enough to have a GP who still does deliveries at all!)
        I got watched a little closer towards the end and was induced instead of letting the pregnancy go late. But that’s it. No other interventions at all and no other concerns.
        I think it is a very good point about the reduced litigiousness here. It’s one of the things (in my outsider’s opinion) that seems to really drive up the US medical costs.

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  15. Alix says:

    My parents were the youngest children of very large families. My dad’s mom was 40 at his birth; my mom’s mom was 45. My parents married at 30 and had 4 children, my mom was 42/dad 44 for the youngest. There have always been older parents; when you think about what it was like prior to birth control, women who survived childbirth often had children right up until menopause.

    I work in a children’s hospital. There are young parents and older parents who bring their chronically ill children to us; some with genetic problems, some with acquired problems. Problems are potentially there no matter what age mom or dad happens to be.

    Have children when it works for you, if you want them at all. For whatever reason, there is s huge contingent of people who are going to think you are wrong no matter what you do — have children young, or old, or not at all, or only one, or “too many”, and someone will have something negative to say about it.

    • justhypatia says:

      I’ve been doing some ancestry research lately. My great-great-grandmother had twelve children, all of them survived infancy. She had her first at 21, her last? Age 50!

      She also lived to 87, not bad for someone born in 1845.

      Obviously an extreme example, but having kids in your 40’s isn’t as rare as most make it out to be. If women remained healthy it was quite normal to continue having kids into their late 30’s and early 40’s.

    • Bridget says:

      Yeah, my grandmother pretty much had babies for 20 years straight. 12 pregnancies, resulting in 8 kids.

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