Birth Dearth Examined

Many of my friends, their studies long completed, their fingers adorned with matrimonial rings, and their careers blossoming, are now having children.  Life comprises a series of cycles, and for my contemporaries it’s a fertile phase.  None of this is particularly notable, except that my peers and I are in our late-thirties.

Judith Shulevitz has my demographic in mind when writing about the phenomenon of delayed parenthood in the New Republic.  Since 1970, she notes, the average age of American first-time mothers has risen from 21.5 to 25.4.  In some places like Massachusetts, women typically begin having children in their late-twenties.  Men are also postponing parenthood, and at the same rate as females.  

This trend offers some reason for cheer.  Studies show that children of older parents are reared in more stable and prosperous homes and, as such, tend to perform better academically and are more stable themselves than contemporaries raised by younger and less established mothers and fathers.  But a growing body of evidence indicates that delayed parenthood also carries significant risks.

Rates of mental retardation, Down syndrome, and a host of other birth defects are positively correlated with a mother’s age at delivery: the risk that a pregnancy will yield any number of conditions associated with genetic mutations increases from two to three percent when a woman is in her twenties to 30 percent when she’s in her forties.  The biological clock isn’t sexist, as children of older men are also more likely to suffer dwarfism and cleft palettes than those from more youthful fathers.  A study by Nature found that the rise in older fathers could explain the 78 percent increase in autism cases in the past decade.   Another study found that men over 50 were three times more likely than those under 25 to father a schizophrenic child.

The worrying phenomenon of postponed parenthood is endemic: between 1975 and 2010, the average number of births per woman around the world declined from 4.7 to 2.6, which is the result of many factors, chief among them the rising age of mothers.  At first blush, the prospect of falling fertility is good news given that global population, already high, is slated to top nine billion by mid-century.  It also signals the rising status of women, who are less apt to spend their lives popping out babies at the cost of their own development.  Yet regional variation muddles the picture.  Poor countries like Nigeria and Pakistan still have frighteningly high birthrates, while those in more affluent nations like the US are below replacement levels, oftentimes by dramatic margins.  It’s a distinction with a difference.

Just as delayed parenthood carries significant risks for children of older parents, it also imperils developed countries with low fertility rates, since older first-time mothers tend to have fewer children overall, thus further skewing demographic imbalances in favor of the elderly.  Such disparities are problematic.  Greying societies have fewer productive workers relative to retirees, which tests social security programs and thus lower living standards.  They’re also less dynamic and innovative and experience relative declines in their global heft and importance.

To avert this fate, many developed countries experiencing a so-called birth dearth are trying with uneven success to reverse the trend by offering “cash-for-babies” programs and other subsidies and benefits to promote parenthood.  But the challenge is enormous.  One reason is because bearing children often entails significant costs to career-driven women.  Shulevitz observes: “When women enjoy the same access to education and professional advancement as men but face penalties for reproducing, then, unsurprisingly, they don’t.”  

Yet the challenge isn’t only related to women.  That men are also delaying parenthood suggests something larger is amiss that cannot be solved by simply offering inducements to females.  That something is falling living standards.  While the poor and working classes have long suffered stagnant and declining wages and the outsourcing and disappearance of low-skill jobs, the upwardly mobile are also feeling the crunch.  It takes more education at more cost to claw into the middle class.  Likewise, housing is more expensive, as is daycare and schooling for the little ones when they do come along.  In short, it takes more time, effort, and money to reach that point when children become affordable.

I see this with my peers.  Only now when they’re nearing 40 do they have the wherewithal to have kids.  Of course, delaying parenthood longer and longer cannot continue indefinitely.  What then?  Will falling standards of living drive us to extinction?  Doubtful.  Even if it does it won’t happen soon.  We can take perverted solace in news from India where two 70-year old women recently gave birth.

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