A recent article in the Guardian discussed the rise of pregnancies in women over forty. The writer, Zeynep Gurtin, questioned whether this rise was really down to an active choice by women to have children later, or whether various social factors were driving this phenomenon. Perhaps unsurprisingly, Gurtin concluded that increasing conception rates in the over-forties were less women’s choices than the manifestation of certain social factors that necessitated later pregnancies.
But this is where Gurtin surprises me. Basing her article on ONS data, Gurtin notes that the ONS suggests only a couple of drivers behind these statistics: women spending a longer time in education and work and the rising costs of child-rearing. But for Gurtin, the major issue at play is the increasingly precarious relationship status of many women (and men) into their mature years. She feels that many women are struggling to find the ‘right’ partner, and that high numbers of men now see no incentive in commitment, what with the myriad options online dating presents. As Gurtin formulates it, the issues are social and relational, as opposed to economic.
Yet I feel that relational problems only arise as a result of the economic. If men really are committing to relationships in lower numbers, is this truly because they are fickle beings, overwhelmed into indecision by the choices out there on the internet? If women genuinely are holding out longer to find a partner who fulfils all the requirements they have (as Gurtin implies), is this really because they have developed unprecedented levels of pickiness? I think not. I think any declining rates in relational commitment from both men and women are heavily influenced by declines in economic and situational stability. And this, in my opinion, is what lies behind the rising levels of pregnancy in the over-forties.
Consider this: the average age for a UK woman to have her first child was roughly twenty-four in 1960; today the average age is closer to thirty. In 1960, the average age for someone to buy their first house was just 23. Now, just like first-time mothers, the average first-time buyer is around 30. It is no coincidence that these two statistics parallel each other. In a society that has viewed home-ownership as democratic enfranchisement since Thatcherite ideas became politically ingrained, it is only natural that those who attach notions of economic stability to house-buying feel unwilling to have children until they see themselves as in a stable position.
And if people cannot buy homes till later, then there must be several other factors which lead to the financial insecurity underlying this. Stagnating wages, insecure employment and rising costs are all contributing to precarious economic conditions. But data from the United States suggests that the effects of economic hardship are impacting particularly on one group’s fertility statistics. In-depth research has found that big cities and coastal areas in the United States (which typically have more affluent populations with higher levels of college education) see significantly older first time mothers than in rural areas. In San Fransisco, the average age of a new mother is 32; in Todd County, South Dakota (the third poorest county in the United States), the average age is 20.
Sociologist Heather Rackin comments on the research findings, and concludes that the reason for the pregnancy age gap is that women with a higher socio-economic status ‘just have more potential things they could do instead of being a parent’. In her opinion, the ‘other things’ these women do simply cause them to postpone the age at which they first become a parent, while women of a lower socio-economic status, lacking ‘other things’ to do, see parenthood as a source of ‘emotional fulfilment’.
But partaking of higher education and developing a career cannot simply be framed as an alternative choice to having children at prime child-bearing age. For one, surely the idea that women have to make a choice between parenthood and a career is outdated? And if women are actually having to make that ‘choice’, then it is not really so much a choice but a case of forfeit. Of course many women will never want to have children, and some will not feel emotionally ready to be a mother until their forties - that is absolutely their choice and a woman’s right. But if a woman feels under pressure to develop a solid career and financial security just so she can fulfil certain economic conditions prior to having a child (a totally reasonable way to feel), then is it not worrying that economic stability is becoming increasingly elusive?
Of course, there is a lingering gender disparity in the way parenthood affects men and women. Women are likely to see their career trajectory slump following periods of maternity leave. Flexible working options are not yet the norm in workplaces, and with the burden of childcare and housework hitting women most heavily, their career aspirations can often be cut short by an earlier pregnancy.
That women from specific socio-economic backgrounds may feel the need to demonstrate economic and career success and have families is unsurprising, and it explains the need for many to postpone having children. It is worrying that gender plays such a big part in making career success and familial aspirations seem incompatible, but this is not the whole story. Balancing gender roles will go a long way to enabling women who would like to have children at a younger age and have a successful career to do so. But the issue cannot be solved unless we face the facts of economic insecurity today.
As a young woman, I look at my parents’ generation and worry that I will not experience the same economic security that they did. I am lucky to come from a privileged background - I have had a consistently good education and a lot of opportunities. But I nevertheless have my worries. Having grown up with the belief that a fulfilling career, and independent financial stability is important for me as a woman, I am pretty sure at the age of twenty-one that I will not choose to have a child until I have achieved these things. As the welfare system crumbles and living costs soar, I imagine that many young people feel the same. As prosperity and situational security become harder to grasp, women will have children later and later, leading to rising health complications and declining fertility rates.
That fertility crisis on the horizon? It’s not about picky women or uncommitted men, but about the worsening economic outcomes that people see before them. And until our society prioritises economic security for everyone, we will continue to head in the direction of later and later parenthood. And then maybe, it will be too late.