The average age of American women having their first child reached a record high of 26 years old in 2013, according to the Centres for Disease Control and Prevention’sNational Vital Statistics Report.
The average age of first-time mothers is increasing because more women are waiting until their 30s and 40s to start having kids and fewer women are having their first kids in their teens and 20s, the CDC report says.
The majority of all births are still to women under 35 (about 85% of the total), but rates for all births, not just of a first child, to women over 35 have been rising over the past 20 years, while birth rates for younger women are stable or declining.
That trend is no small matter. It’s already changing families, lives, and economies, and as having kids later becomes more common, those changes will become more widespread.
We’re only beginning to adjust, but make no mistake: Older parents are not going away, and the impact of this shift is huge.
What’s driving the shift?
It’s a general trend that as more women get an education and enter the workforce, they marry and start having kids later in life, Stephanie Coontz, co-chair and Director of Research and Public Education for the Council on Contemporary Families, told Business Insider. Social and cultural factors also drive the trend.
When “a country … does not enable women to combine work and family well and has strong motherhood penalties, [the trend] is going to be exacerbated by that,” Coontz, who is also a professor at The Evergreen State College, told Business Insider.
If a woman has to choose between pursuing her career and starting a family rather than doing both at the same time, putting off having kids becomes more likely, in other words. That choice is less trying in countries with better childcare systems and more generous maternity and paternity leaves.
Even if it were easier to combine a career and having kids, there are personal reasons a woman might decide to wait to start a family, Elizabeth Gregory writes in “Ready: Why Women are Embracing the New Later Motherhood.” Women may want to accomplish specific goals, to have certain experiences, to be in a relationship with the right partner, to be financially and emotionally stable, or any combination of these factors.
The availability of reliable contraception offers the means to delay having kids, Gregory writes.
“Use of the pill (in tandem with more reliable versions of other forms of birth control) makes contemporary women different from all the generations of women before us,” Gregory writes.
With both incentive (pursuing education, careers, or other experiences) and means (birth control) to wait to have kids, more women are going that route, and some of the risks and benefits are coming into focus.
Pros and cons
The drawbacks of waiting to start a family are relatively intuitive.
Because a woman’s fertility begins to decrease at age 32 and decreases more sharply after age 37, it will likely be more difficult for her to conceive at 40 than it would have been when she was 30, though every woman will have a different experience.
And contrary to what it may seem, in vitro fertilization (IVF) is not a cure-all for fertility decreasing with age. The percentage of IVF cycles that result in a baby declines from about 40% for women aged 32 and younger, to about 20% for 40-year-old women, to less than 5% for women 44 and older who use their own eggs. If women use donated eggs, the percentage of IVF cycles that result in a baby does not decrease for older women, but the fact remains that IVF is nowhere near 100% successful.
Miscarriages and a number of complications to pregnancy, including gestational diabetes and high blood pressure, are more common for women over 35. Even if a woman is able to have a healthy child at 40, she may not be able to have as many children as she would like, as her fertility continues to decline.
In addition to increasing infertility with age, the risks of older parenthood also include the parents having less energy and the grandparents having less involvement in the children’s lives, Gregory says in her book.
Still, Gregory writes, waiting to have kids has plenty of benefits to weigh against the potential risks.
Gregory presents an analysis of US Census data from 2000 that shows women who waited to have kids had significantly higher salaries than women of the same age, with the same level of education, who had kids earlier.
For women between ages 40-45 with professional degrees and full-time jobs, those who gave birth to their first child at age 35 made more than $US50,000 more per year than women who had their first child at 20, on average. Even waiting to start a family just five more years, at 35 instead of 30, made a difference of $US16,000 per year, on average.
Besides higher salaries, women who wait until they’re at least 35 to have kids generally have accrued experience and clout at work that helps them create what Gregory calls a “shadow benefits system” to supplement official benefits for parents (or lack thereof). They may have lots of stored up vacation time, or may be able to negotiate more flexible work schedules or the ability to work from home, when more junior colleagues might not.
In the absence of official benefits to make it easy for women to have a family while continuing to work, putting off having kids can become less like a preference and more like a necessity.
“If the world finds the new later motherhood solution problematic, then we, as a society, need to offer other good options for combining family and career,” Gregory writes.
Why it’s a big deal
Whether more women waiting to have kids is exactly a
problem or not, changing the typical timeline for having kids has implications — for families, countries, and the world — that can’t be ignored.
Age-related decline in fertility and the increased likelihood of miscarriages and pregnancy complications with age mean that waiting to have kids can put extra physical stress on a woman’s body and her baby’s — not a negligible effect.
But a woman’s choice to wait to have kids offers important benefits to society, too. When women establish themselves in their careers before having kids, it can have long-term positive implications for their kids and their employees, Gregory writes in her book. Getting an education and making more money raises a woman’s socioeconomic status, so a working class mother can potentially raise middle class kids if she waits to start a family.
Besides increasing their own families’ upward social mobility, women who delay having kids and advance to positions of authority at work then have the power to set policies they and their female employees would benefit from, like offering paid maternity and paternity leave or allowing flexible work schedules. This “feeds a gradual transformation of the culture of work that can lead in the long run to more equitable HR policies for everybody,” Gregory writes.
At the level of countries, when many women wait until they’re older to start having kids it can have implications for the general fertility rate, because they have fewer fertile years left in which they can have more kids.
Data from the World Bank show the seven countries where the average age of women giving birth to their first child is above 30 (Greece, Australia, South Korea, Japan, Italy, Switzerland, and Luxembourg, according to the CIA World Factbook) all have general fertility rates below what’s called the replacement rate. That means the generation currently having kids isn’t having enough to replace itself. Countries with low fertility rates have populations that are ageing and set to shrink, meaning fewer people of working age have to support more older dependents.
The decision to wait to have kids begins as a personal choice with personal effects, but the trend of older first-time parents is already reshaping our world in big ways.
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