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When age begins to matter. Why postponing parenthood?

Hausarbeit 2014 21 Seiten

Sozialwissenschaften allgemein



1. Introduction

2. Theories
2.1 Human capital dimension and postponed childbearing
2.1.1 Education
2.1.2 Income
2.2 Too old biologically or too old socially?
2.2.1 Social interaction
2.2.2 Psychological effect of age
2.3 How late is too late?

3. State of research
3.1 Socio-economic factors
3.2 Social factors
3.3 Medical factors

4. Conclusion

5. Literature

6. Appendix


The paper deals with the issue of later childbearing and the driving forces behind the decision of postponing parenthood. Since this is a global process which affects not only individuals on the micro level, but whole populations, which nowadays face many social challenges, caused by the Second demographic transition. Socio-economic reasons mixed with cultural differences and changing values are among the main reasons for the shift of the timing of childbearing among women. With the equalization of rights between men and women, the educational level of the female population has increased, leading to better career opportunities and the abandonment of the typical view on women as housewives. The introduction of contraceptive methods and the development of medical technology have given women more freedom in the decision-making process concerning family formation and childbearing, but if this tendency continues, what effects could we expect on the society and should governments intervene in individuals’ life course choices so that we do not experience lasting negative outcomes? This and other questions are still left unanswered but should probably be included on the agenda.

1. Introduction

Two years ago, a prominent American journalist, who is specialized in science edition, published an article with the title “How older parenthood will upend American society: The scary consequences of the grey generation” and gained a lot of attention focusing on the negative side of this demographic trend. But this statement was hardly new for scientists, studying female fertility. Since the 50’s and 60’s of the 20th century, sociologists, anthropologists, as well as psychologists are concerned with the so called “Second demographic transition”, which takes place around the whole world, with only few countries not taking part in it, and leads to important questions about the changing family practices and their impact on society. Women become their first child older but what does old mean? In this context, age could be seen from different perspectives, when talking about fertility. Firstly, a woman’s childbearing function is limited to a certain age, which could differ, but in most cases 40-45 years could be told to be medically the deadline for entering motherhood. Secondly, speaking in terms of societal expectations, becoming a mother after the 30’s is assumed as being an elderly primigavida. Since this is an ongoing process and the mean age of women having their first child is still increasing, this topic is relevant not only on the micro-level, concerning health, social recognition and family stability of older parents, but as well on the macro- level, as a drop in the population growth and changes in the employment market might occur. The aim of this paper is to provide a comprehensive review of this issue and explore the reasons for postponing parenthood, summarizing the most relevant arguments and explanations for the postponement. In the first part, theories will be presented so that the driving forces behind the later childbearing become clear. These will be divided in three main dimensions, whose main proposals will be respectively presented as hypotheses. Next, different papers which discuss postponed parenthood will be critically reviewed, leading to confirming or rejecting the given hypotheses. In the final part, a summary will try to collect the main conclusions and give proposals for further investigation of the issue.

2. Theories

The theoretical argumentation of a great amount of studies on fertility and postponement of parenthood derives from an economic, a social and a medical point of view. This is why the following part presents in a similar way the major forces for postponing childbearing, divided into three main categories, which assume different variables that could affect the changes in the life course of couples.

2.1 Human capital dimension and postponed childbearing

2.1.1 Education

The concept postponement is connected to the rising mean age at first birth, which started among the birth cohorts in the 1940’s in western developed countries, in the United States even in the 1930’s (Frejka/Sardon: 2006). Many authors find a relationship between this starting point and the “growing pluralism and individualism” which changed in many aspects the life course circumstances (Kemkes-Grottenthaler 2003:1). There is evidence that younger couples decide to postpone their first child because of fear of losing their autonomy and individuality- another feature of the new modernity (Liefbroer: 2005). But one of the most important shifts that occurred with modernization is undoubtedly the chance for women to have a broader access to education and through their attainment of higher education respectively build careers and be at the same value as man on the employment market. For this reason, an economic model of timing of first birth is created which could be directly connected to the rational choice theory. As one of the most frequently used theory for explaining individual’s social acting, the rational choice theory proceeds from the assumption that individuals act towards their needs and benefits (Homans: 1968). So if a woman does not see any benefits in the transition to parenthood, on the contrary, will suffer opportunity costs, the decision-making process will lead toward postponing parenthood. Educational enrolment suggests another reason connected to economic well-being, namely the returns after the obtainment of a degree (Billiari/Liefbroer/Philipov: 2006). Another reason, suggested by Billiari concerning timing is the commitment to education, more precisely the concentration on energy and time during the studying period (ebd.). So there is a possible connection between the length of the study and postponement of childbearing. Of course there are controversial outcomes which state that higher education of women does not directly correlate with lower fertility (Mills 2008). Nevertheless, the two main hypotheses that can be formulated here are:

H1: The higher the educational level of a woman, the later she will become her first child.

H2: The bigger the returns from the educational level, the later the transition of a woman to parenthood occurs.

2.1.2 Income

Directly connected to education, income also plays an important role for the childbearing trend among women. Through the so called “wage gap” women could suffer income deficits if they decide to retire from their career to have a child (Martin: 2002). However, as Anderson, Binder and Krause state correctly, the relationship between later parenthood and wage penalty is not sure to be linear, instead, it could be affected by other socio-economic factors (Anderson/Binder/Krause: 2002). As it becomes clear, income is a well studied economic variable, which in the context of fertility could be theorized in both ways- higher income leading to lower fertility, as well as lower income as a reason for postponing parenthood. In the first case, a quantity- quality tradeoff, suggested by Becker and Lewis (1973) theorizes that “parents with higher income value children’s quality but a focus on higher quality raises the cost of having (and raising) children thereby potentially reducing fertility levels” (Balbo/Billiari/Mills 2011: 8). But this does not say much about the practice of postponing, so the logic behind income and postponement would rather go in other direction- later childbearing increases the chances for higher wage rates among women, at the same time, higher wages increase the age of the first childbearing (Mertens et. al: 1998). When talking about the Post- Soviet countries of Central and East Europe, we paradoxically conclude that lower income could lead to early childbearing, as in the case of Poland. The first years of transition were not as successful as expected and the poor economic situation in Poland leaded to an increase in childbearing at an early age because of the less perspectives women saw on the labor market, therefore they did not see much reason in postponing parenthood (Mynarska: 2010). So higher income alone is not a credible reason enough for women to enter into motherhood (Kemkes-Grottenthaler: 2003). The hypothesis which could follow from this section is as follows:

H3: The higher the age of a woman at her first childbearing, the higher her income rate is.

2.2 Too old biologically or too old socially?

Except for economic reasons, there are other effects which could lead to postponing parenthood. This section will present sociopsychological arguments that could affect first childbearing, as the society itself could as well exercise influence on women’s decision-making.

2.2.1 Social interaction

These kinds of factors are mainly studied with the help of qualitative research methods. Kohler et. al differentiates between social learning and social influence as two key elements of social interaction (Kohler et. al: 2001). Both of these processes could influence couples’ fertility decisions, especially since the spread of modern contraception and the diffusion of cultural values, morals and all kinds of different lifestyles due to processes of globalization (Bernardi: 2003). Since individuals have different sources for information through their social networks, social pressure could come from the side of kin, friends, work colleagues, mass media and many more. Social pressure could be expressed by labeling, as a woman will try to adjust to other’s preferences, where feelings of obligation could play an important role if there is some kind of perceived age deadline for childbearing (ebd.). So the relationship between social interaction and timing of childbearing could be presented as follows:

H4: The less social pressure a woman feels about childbearing, the later she will become her first child.

2.2.2 Psychological effect of age

Parenthood can be connected to a higher well-being of parents once they become their first child, but it could lead to more stressful situations as well. Postponing parenthood could be chosen as an option because of the supposed greater emotional stability of older parents and their capability to deal with stressful situations (Martin: 2002). Older parents have a more strong social support and a better socio-economic situation- two important features which speak in favor of postponing childbearing. Psychologically speaking, the mother- child relationship is told to be better working when the mother becomes her first child around her 30’s, with the later transition to parenthood the frustration from the whole process of transition decreases and a more positive maternal behavior is observed (ebd.). Heath also notices a correlation between later childbearing and the relationship of the child to the father, as the older parent devotes more time and care to his child (Heath: 1994). Emotional closeness is hard to measure, but according to studies on this topic a possible reason for postponing parenthood is:

H5: The later the child is born, the stronger is the emotional bond between parents and child.

2.3 How late is too late?

Although there have been great improvements in all spheres of technology, including medical equipment, postponing parenthood might affect the mother and the child’s health when transition to parenthood takes place in the late 30’s. Despite the progress in medicine and the emancipation of women, their biological clock has not changed. Women between 30 and 40 have difficulties conceiving and the probability of spontaneous abortion is higher as well (National Survey of Family Growth: 2002). So it becomes clear that the biological effect on later parenthood has rather negative effects and is connected to a lot of risks during and after pregnancy. Оnly 5% of couples in which the woman is 35 years old are sterile, but approximately 20% of women conceiving at that age will experience spontaneous abortion (Leridon: 2008) Hypertension, diabetes, preterm delivery are just some of the negative outcomes of later childbearing, although there is evidence that delayed pregnancy might not be directly the reason for them (Martin: 2002). In fact, some authors claim, that later motherhood increases female longevity (Müller et. al: 2002). Nevertheless ,what could be concluded here is that:

H6: Medical problems are more common among older parents than among those, who do not postpone parenthood.

3. State of research

The potential importance of this demographic trend becomes noticeable from the amount of new emerging studies which capture specific aspects of the issue. Table 1 shows that across Europe later childbearing has become a continuous process, the Netherlands being an outstanding example, where the mean age of the first childbearing has risen with 3 years from 1980 to 2004 (Billari/Liefbroer/Philipov: 2006). There is clear empirical evidence that postponing parenthood occurs not only in Western societies. But it remains questionable whether the analyses of postponed parenthood have been able to capture national, regional or local specifics which could affect later childbearing due to cultural, social or political differences.



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Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin

Titel: When age begins to matter. Why postponing parenthood?