"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.
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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.
Many children born to older parents are averaging fewer years with their parents than peers with younger parents. This isn't to say that older parents aren't living as long as younger parents--in fact, research shows that older parents tend to live particularly long lives, which is likely due to the fact that a healthy, active person is likely the kind of person who'd consider having a baby after age 40. But even with an incrementally longer lifespan, older parents will spend more of their childrens' lives in need of care, rather than providing it.
Then there's the point that Shulevitz raises about the conflicting demands on an older parent's financial resources--while supporting their children, they're also more likely to be supporting their own parents, whose decline comes at an emotional and financial price. And let's not forget the incredible cost of college, which may coincide with the reduced income of retirement for older parents.
What Is the Economic Impact on Society?
When it comes down to the costs versus the benefits of older parenthood, it seems that the proponents come out ahead. Although there are costs associated with birth defects, they could very well be offset by the fact that these older parents--the only group in the country with a rising birthrate--are also the most economically secure. All that time spent establishing career and financial security means, as Miller of New York magazine points out, older parents are especially well prepared to tackle the astronomical costs of ART or adoption, as well as financially provide for their children.
Research continues to show that children of older parents perform higher on IQ tests and are, on the whole, more academically successful than their peers, which is likely due to a higher level of engagement from parents who waited so long to have kids--and wanted them so much as to consider ART or adoption. The New York magazine story cites a 2008 study that compared the standardized-test scores of almost 500 children born via in vitro fertilization against those of other children. The result? Children born via IVF outscored their peers in every category--reading, math and language skills--and the older the mother, the better the scores.
Additionally, research from the Institute of Education shows that financial stability does wonders for kids. A study of 8,000 children born between 2000 and 2001 in the United Kingdom found that the test-score gap between those born into persistent poverty against other children was the equivalent of being born to a mother with no or rudimentary education qualifications versus being born to a university-educated one. And well-adjusted, academically successful kids more often than not become employed adults who contribute positively to the economy.
Since the over-40 crowd's birthrate is rising, proportionately more children of the next generation will have older parents--which could be a good thing.
So does rising parental age necessarily prove problematic for the economy?
Probably not. But it does mean that we'll have a front-row seat to witness the changing dynamics in the U.S. as the experience of these kids becomes the norm.