The Trend Toward Delayed First Childbirth: Health and Social Implications

ABSTRACT

On average, today’s first-time parents are better educated and have incomes that are considerably higher than parents having children in the 1970s. However, this “good news” is tempered by virtue of growing socio-economic disparities between younger and older parents. While it is not surprising to find that younger parents have lower incomes than older parents, the differentials have increased dramatically since the mid 1970s. This delayed childbirth and the growing socio-economic diversity of first-time parents has important social and health implications.

Although the importance of parenting capacity on child development is recognized, little attention has been given to the impact of fertility patterns – in particular, the timing of first childbirth – on the characteristics and circumstances of parents having children. This is an important consideration in light of the substantial change in fertility patterns over the last three decades. In comparison with earlier generations of postwar parents, Canadians today are having fewer children, and they are often delaying first childbirth until their late 20s and early 30s.

The trend of delayed first childbirth

In 1976, the average age of women having their first-born child was 23.4, and a clear majority of all first-time mothers (62 %) were under the age of 25.[ 1 ] On the other hand, women aged 30 years or older accounted for just nine percent of all first-order births. By 1996, the average age of first-time mothers increased to 26.6, with a minority of first-births to women younger than 25 years (36 %). On the other hand, the share of first-order births to women aged 30 years and older more than tripled, accounting for three out of every 10 first births.

While the trend of delayed first birth is represented by the rightward shift of the 1996 curve relative to the 1976 curve, it is also evident that a lower peak and a greater degree of dispersion characterize the 1996 distribution.[ 2 ] In this sense, the timing of first childbirth has become more varied relative to the pattern seen in 1976.

lochhead-fig1e

It is also apparent that the shape of the 1996 distribution has become irregular. The share of first births to women between the ages of 19 and 22 does not continue to increase (as it did in 1976), but flattens. This uniquely shaped distribution is assumed to be due to the increasing enrolment of women in post-secondary education and the decreased fertility rate during this four-year period of study. This hypothesis is supported by a preliminary analysis of the age of first-time mothers with and without a university education.[ 3 ]

lochhead-fig2e

For many young women and men, there are powerful economic and career incentives to delay childbirth and family formation more generally. Marrying and having children later allows young people opportunity to pursue post-secondary education, and additional time to gain employment experience and security in a highly competitive labour market.

  • Educational attainment: In 1971, 61 percent of first-time mothers and fathers had less than Grade 12 secondary education. Twenty-five years later, in 1996, only 21 percent of mothers and 23 percent of fathers had attained less than Grade 12. Increases in educational attainment are also apparent at the post-secondary level as well. The percentage of first-time mothers with a university degree increased from four to 18 percent between 1971 and 1996 and from 11 to 20 percent among first-time fathers.
  • Employment activity: As a result of the increased employment of mothers, the majority of today’s couples having their first child are dual earners (72 % in 1996, compared with 44 % in 1971). Many are employed on a full-time full-year basis.

Growing income disparity in relation to the timing of first childbirth

The divergence in the incomes of younger and older parents over time is shown in Figure 3, which compares the average total before-tax family income of young parents to the overall median income.[ 4 ] In 1971 the median income of two-parent families whose oldest child was under six years of age was $35,905 (in constant 1998 dollars), and the average income of two-parent families in which the mother was under 25 was about $3,800 below this midpoint. On the other hand, the average income of families in which the mother was age 35 and over was $43,230, surpassing the overall median by just over $7000. In short, compared to the median, younger first-time parents in 1971 were not as well off financially as older first-time parents.

lochhead-fig3e

That younger first-time parents have lower incomes than older first-time parents is hardly surprising. More important is the extent to which this difference has widened over time. In 1996, median income of two-parent families whose oldest child was five years of age or under had increased to $50,976. However, the average family income of young parents fell in real terms, to slightly less than $30,000. As a result, the incomes of younger parents were an average of $21,000 below the median. On the other hand, the incomes of older parents were now $19,000 above the median. The resulting income gap between younger parents and those with delayed first childbirth is quite large, and is certainly more pronounced than in the past.

Implications of the timing of first birth

Measured in terms of annual family income and parental educational attainment, the relative “disadvantages” associated with early first childbirth have deepened while the “advantages” associated with delayed childbirth have increased. In an economy that increasingly demands and rewards post-secondary training, the incomes of younger and less educated parents have fallen far behind their older counterparts. Moreover, young parents are competing for jobs in a labour market that has seen the real earnings of young adults, particularly young men, decline as much as 30 percent between 1981 and 1995.[ 5 ] On the other hand, older first-time parents often possess post-secondary credentials, have high levels of employment and earn family incomes that are well above the average.

To the extent that education, income and career can be considered incentives to delay childbirth, awareness of the widening education and income differentials may have an impact on future fertility behaviours. Will today’s prospective parents see delayed childbirth as offering relative economic “rewards,” and incorporate this into their family planning and fertility intentions? For example, what might be the impact of these trends on future demand for in vitro fertilization (IVF) services?

Consideration should also be given to the longer-term implications of the timing of childbirth. Will the lower income and education of younger parents be “carried forward” through time? For example, Grindstaff et al. suggest that “it is likely that an early birth and the attendant child rearing process curtails education, and additional births continue to keep the women out of a formal education system.”[ 6 ] In this sense, the lower levels of education among younger mothers may be a permanent, and not just postponed, characteristic. Future longitudinal research might also examine the earnings and income trajectories of parents in relation to the timing of first birth.

Additional work is required to obtain a fuller understanding of the economic and financial circumstances associated with the timing of births. In this paper, only pre-tax annual family income has been considered. A more comprehensive assessment of financial circumstances of parents would include annual income after tax, as well as accumulated assets and debt. The apparent economic advantage accruing from delayed childbirth may diminish, for example, under increasing post-secondary debt loads.

While adequate income is an important and necessary resource for parents, it provides no guarantee that children will be healthy. Numerous research studies have demonstrated that income is but one of several factors affecting child development and health. It is here that the increased variance in the timing of childbirth takes on its significance, for it is indicative of the increasing diversity of life circumstances in which parents are having and raising children. Parents who start their families at older ages may have the economic benefits flowing from higher educational attainment and increased employment activity, but may also be disproportionately affected by “time poverty.” Recent results from the 1998 General Social Survey on Time Use indicate that nearly 50 percent of married mothers employed full-time and with children under five years of age experience severe time stress. The extent of time poverty and its impact on the health of parents and children are not well understood, but could prove to be increasingly important factors contributing to families and children at risk.

The analysis reported here offers a new window into the linkages between demographic trends and the trade offs involved in obtaining an education, and starting a family, as well as a preliminary basis from which to consider hypotheses bearing on work/family trade offs and their associated health implications. For example, will the trend in delayed childbirth lead to a greater demand for reproductive technologies? Does this imply a trend toward more multiple births? What are the health prospects of children conceived with assisted reproduction, and what will be their impact upon the health and social systems?

At the social level, what does this mean for maintaining replacement population? Could it lead to “rent or buy” labour force policies, or a fundamental reshaping of immigration policy?

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Note

*   Clarence Lochhead is a partner with DataQuest Consulting, Ottawa. This paper is based on the research findings from A Profile of Mothers and Fathers in Canada: 1971-1996 commissioned by the Policy Division of Health Canada.

 1.  Data on the age of mothers at first birth are drawn from Statistics Canada Vital Statistics, custom tabulations.

 2.  In 1976, the average age at first birth was 23.4 years, with a standard deviation of 4.4 years. In 1996, the average age at first birth was 26.6 years with a standard deviation of 5.5 years. In other words, as the average age at first childbirth has increased, so to has the degree of spread around the average.

 3.  The statistical profile of first-time mothers and fathers is drawn from the census public-use micro data files (PUMFS). Because the census provides no direct identifier of first-time parents, it is necessary to derive it on the basis of the age of the oldest child in the family. Accordingly, first-time parents are defined here as those whose oldest child living at home was aged 0 to 5.

 4.  Lone-parent mothers and fathers are excluded from the analysis of incomes.

 5.  Policy Research Initiative, Sustaining Growth, Human Development and Social Cohesion in a Global World, February 1999.

 6.  Carl F. Grindstaff, T.R. Balakrishnan and D.J. Dewit, “Educational attainment, age at first birth and lifetime fertility: An analysis of Canadian fertility survey data,” The Canadian Review of Sociology and Anthropology, Vol. 28, no. 3 (August 1991), p. 335.