“Old” is relative.
Really, there’s just older. And that’s where many first-time parents are finding themselves nowadays: older than their own parents were when they had kids.
In the United States, first-time mothers are about 25, on average, and first-time fathers are between 27 and 28–about four years older than either group was in 1970, according to the Center for Disease Control. And although the recession has largely depressed birth rates overall, births to parents 40 and older are actually up.
In other words, parents aren’t old, but they are getting older.
In a recent The New Republic article that has generated a lot of buzz, Judith Shulevitz writes that the increase in parental age may be problematic. Among other things, she points to a higher incidence of developmental delays and genetic defects in babies born to older parents.
As the age of first-time parents increases, what is the financial impact on the next generation … and on society as a whole?
Why Today’s Parents Are Getting Older
For starters, women are putting off having children to establish themselves professionally–and for a good reason. For them, the connection between delaying parenthood and career success is stronger than it is for men: A 2008 study by the Families and Work Institute found that, among senior executives at ten major U.S. companies, female executives were nearly three times more likely than male executives to delay parenthood (35% vs. 12%).
And these women are largely competing against men whose wives or partners are taking care of things on the home front. The same study found that 75% of senior male executives had spouses who stayed at home, while 74% of the female executives had a full-time working partner. As Lisa Miller writes in New York Magazine, “A woman who has to compete with men at work (late nights, weekend conference calls), when those men have wives at home caring for kids, is exactly the kind of woman who might find herself in a fertility clinic at 48.”
Women are also aiming to establish themselves financially before children arrive–those who have their first child at 35 make $50,000 more per year than women who had their first child at 20. Shulevitz also points out that men are disproportionally out of work post-recession, so more women are assuming the traditional provider role–right along with caregiver. Almost 25% of women earned more than their partners in 2010, which is up from 4% in 1970.
While these parents place a lot of pressure on themselves to be financially and professionally established before tackling parenthood, it does seem to equip them better to deal with the pressures of having children. A 2011 study from the University of Pennsylvania of over 200,000 parents in 86 countries found that happiness in young parents decreases with the number of children … but it’s exactly the opposite for older parents. (Of course, you can take into account that most older parents have older children, but the study showed that older parents with children of any age are happier than their childless peers.)
How This Affects Today’s Kids (and Parents)
One of the primary problems with older parenthood is the physical impact that a parent’s age (both father and mother) has on their child’s health. Researchers now associate older parental age with a much higher risk of birth defects and developmental delays, like Marfan Syndrome, Down Syndrome and Edwards Syndrome. These conditions are costly not only in terms of treatment and correction, but also when it comes to quality of life and emotional health.
Shulevitz, whose first child was born when she was in her late 30s and her husband was a few years older, writes in The New Republic: “I kept meeting children of friends and acquaintances, all roughly my age, who had Asperger’s, autism, obsessive-compulsive disorder, attention-deficit disorder, sensory-integration disorder.” She also cites a recent article from the New England Journal of Medicine that points out how 8.3% of children conceived through artificial reproductive technologies (ART) had defects, while only 5.8% of those born without the use of such methods had similar defects.
For affected children who reach adulthood, it’s difficult to measure the impact such birth defects and developmental delays have on their education, employment opportunities and lifetime earnings–that is, their own finances.