According to the UK’s latest official data, more women are now having babies over the age of thirty than their counterparts in their twenties. Although the demographic shift towards later and later pregnancies has been charted since 1990, the official figures have shown an important shift in recent years. Now, the average age for a first pregnancy is when a woman is out of her twenties. Of course, women have been having babies in their thirties, forties and even their fifties for some time. In the past, older mothers were often seen as the exception rather than the rule. Today, younger women in their early twenties are more likely to be seen as the anomaly.
Of course, there is no right or wrong time to have a baby so long as there is no underlying medical condition that suggests otherwise. That said, clearly something is going on if more and more women are choosing to put off pregnancy until they are older. Although the UK’s data makes this societal shift very clear, the same trends can be seen in much of the Western world, including Canada, the United States and New Zealand. What accounts for this change?
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The Economic Climate
Although there is a longer-term trend towards more first pregnancies occurring in a woman’s thirties, the effect of the global economic crisis should not be underestimated. Since 2008, the cost of living for many people has gone up, notably from high rental charges and house prices. For many, this has meant that getting a place of their own has been delayed. Whereas working people in previous generations might have been able to afford to move out from their parents’ home in their early twenties or even their late teens, this has not been so easy over the last decade. Since many women are putting off living with full financial independence, so they are continuing to work for longer before they feel they can afford to take time off to have babies. Crucially, this is the case even for women with very good employers who take their maternity leave responsibilities seriously.
Shifting Work-Life Aspirations
Despite the macro-economic conditions, the wider field of work is also at play when it comes to later pregnancies. It is not all about the finances. These days, Western women are more likely to want to progress their careers as far as they can before they take a break to start a family. Women are tending to look at their longer-term aspirations in the workplace and prioritise career progression in their twenties so that, when they come back to their career after maternity leave, they re-enter the workplace at a higher level with greater financial security. Of course, some women choose not to have any children at all. This means that women who might have got pregnant in their twenties in previous generations are no longer counted in the statistics at all. As such, the shift to fewer pregnancies overall tends to mean that the average age for those which do occur will go up.
Although there are certainly structural elements to any long-term demographic shift, the fact is that later pregnancies in Canada and elsewhere comes down to the personal choices of women. After all, there are fewer and fewer abortions and teenage pregnancies in the country largely thanks to the availability of effective birth control measures, something that previous generations of women had to do without. As such, the trend of later pregnancies should not be seen as a mere fad but the accumulation of many individual decisions about child rearing made by hundreds of thousands of women who are making their own life decisions.
These days, we should really be celebrating the fact that women are more self-aware than ever before and choosing to have children later, on average, than in the past. Prioritising education, building a career and simply having fun in your twenties is a good thing, after all. This is especially the case when you consider that medical science has improved so much that getting pregnant in your thirties has very little impact on the health of either the baby or the mother.