Parenting is experiencing a major shift, and it has nothing to do with breast feeding, reusable diapers or co-sleeping. It’s the increasing age of the parents behind the stroller, a trend journalist Judith Shulevitz of the New Republic called the “grayest generation.”
For a generation that believes men and women can have it all—years of schooling, successful careers, then marriage and children later on in life, with the help of fertility treatments—Shulevitz reveals the hard truth. Older parenthood brings with it unintended consequences: a higher rate of birth defects, lower birthrate, and less time for parents to spend with their children before they die.
The age of first-time American mothers has increased from 21.5 in 1970 to 25.4 in 2010. For women in urban areas, the age is even higher, while college-educated women have a more than one-in-three chance of having their first child after 30. Fathers also are getting older. The average for first-time fathers is now between 27 and 28 years old.
At the same time, the number of children with birth defects also increased. Between 1997 and 2008, the number of children with learning problems, attention-deficit disorder, autism, and related disorders increased by about 17 percent, according to the Centers for Disease Control.
Shulevitz, who had a child in her late-30s, said “our aging reproductive systems and avid consumption of fertility treatments” has created a generation that is “phenotypically and biochemically different” than the once that came before it.
As a woman ages, she is more likely to give birth to a child with a chromosomal abnormality. A woman in her twenties has less than a 1 percent chance of having a child with chromosomal abnormalities—including Down syndrome—while a women at 49 has a 33 percent chance.
Studies also show a link between the father’s age and the risk of having a child with mental illness. Men over 50 are three times more likely than a man under 25 to have a schizophrenic child. The risk having an autistic child also jumps for men in their 40s or 50s.
Many fertility treatments toted by feminists as a way to defeat a women’s biological clock also have been found to cause birth defects in children. A study from the New England Journal of Medicine found 8.3 percent of children born with the help of assisted reproductive technology had defects, while 5.8 percent of children conceived normally had defects.
"Assisted reproduction is like so many technologies, in that it makes certain situations possible that never were possible before and it suffers from unforeseen glitches,” writes Liz Mundy in her book Everything Conceivable. “It sometimes delivers the desired outcome faster, and in greater number than a person can handle. It solves problems, and creates them."
The effects of fertility treatments on children are often unknown because the industry is under-regulated and the government does not require information on the children produced through the treatments.
Shulevitz is not the only one speaking the controversial message of the downsides of waiting to have children. In the Australian newspaper The Age, columnist Pamela Bone wrote in 2004 that fertility rates were dropping because couples were having their first child later, making it difficult to have as many children as they wanted.
“Adolescence may now linger through the 20s, and 50 may be the new 40, but biology tends not to take notice of cultural change,” she said.
Many parents who have kids in their late 30s and early 40s end up simultaneously caring for small children and ailing parents, Shulevitz noted. These first-time parents are less likely to have help from their older parents, making it more difficult to raise children.
Older parents also will die earlier on in their children’s lives: A mother who is 45 will probably die by the time her child is 37. Shulevitz said that while this fact is obvious, many supporters of reproductive rights find the idea of it offensive.
With the unknown consequences of older parenthood, Shulevitz said many she spoke to called this new trend a natural experiment: “As in, we’re conducting a vast empirical study upon an unthinkably large population: all the babies conceived by older parents, plus those parents, plus their grandparents.”