Monday, December 10, 2012

The Sky Is Falling? Or The Scary Future? On Older Parenthood

The New Republic has an article  on the possible consequences of people having children at older ages.  The headline:

How Older Parenthood Will Upend American Society

The scary consequences of the grayest generation.

So the society will get upended and the consequences are going to be scary.  By this time, of course, all Echidne's cynical and logical bits have started their engines.  This looks like a topic where we are going to get strong opinions, perhaps for more clicks and advertising income. 

Or it could be, of course, that the sky really is falling, that when the usual age for having a first child is, say,  forty the society indeed will be upended.  Fertility rates will bottom, congenital problems in children will go through the roof, and who is going to take care of all those still adolescent children when the parents die of old age?  But of course the usual age at having one's first child is nowhere near forty.   The author, Judith Shulevitz, herself gives us the actual averages:

American first-time mothers have aged about four years since 1970—as of 2010, they were 25.4 as opposed to 21.5. That average, of course, obscures a lot of regional, ethnic, and educational variation. The average new mother from Massachusetts, for instance, was 28; the Mississippian was 22.9. The Asian American first-time mother was 29.1; the African American 23.1. A college-educated woman had a better than one-in-three chance of having her first child at 30 or older; the odds that a woman with less education would wait that long were no better than one in ten.
The rest of the article mostly ignores these facts and focuses on the extreme upper tail of the age-at-first-child distribution, discussing those cases as if they were the New Average.  Hence my skepticism about the whole treatment.  To see what I mean, have a look at this quote:

As a result, the twenties have turned into a lull in the life cycle, when many young men and women educate themselves and embark on careers or journeys of self-discovery, or whatever it is one does when not surrounded by diapers and toys. This is by no means a bad thing, for children or for adults. Study after study has shown that the children of older parents grow up in wealthier households, lead more stable lives, and do better in school. After all, their parents are grown-ups.

Yet all those average ages of having one's first child are in the twenties. If "many" young men and women educate themselves and embark on careers or journeys of self-discovery, they seem to do that in the company of those diapers and toys and so on.

Here's the problem I have with the article.  Once I'm offered a beginning which tells us about a handful of septuagenarian men and women having babies and then a continuation which discusses the author's own experiences with assisted fertility and her child's problems I have great difficulty assuming that the rest of the story will be balanced.  Perhaps it is not even intended to be balanced but an alarm bell about where the society might be going if nothing is done to stop that?

Yet the medical information we are given in the article is probably of value, always keeping in mind that the specialists in, say, infertility treatments don't see a cross-section of all would-be-parents and may develop their global views only on the basis of what their daily work shows them. It's also salutary to remember that the diagnoses given to various problems in children have changed over time and that the diagnosis of, say, the autism spectrum, is given much more frequently now than was the case in the past (when only the most severe cases came to the attention of the health care system.)

This is not to deny that having children later in life wouldn't have additional risks for the children but to note the balance discussing them requires.  Because of the way this article begins, and to some extent continues, I lost my confidence in it.  The topic is important enough to cover from a more neutral ground, without those attempts to make it "scary."

Yet the author of the article, Judith Shulevitz, has some interesting points to make which differ from your run-of-the-mill "aging mothers" articles.  For example, she discusses the medical risks the child can experience from both older mothers and older fathers, and she points out the asymmetry of reproduction costs in most societies, though in the context of a possible population dearth (and not in the context of older parenthood) and what could be done about persuading people to have more children:
Demographers and sociologists agree about what those policies are. The main obstacle to be overcome is the unequal division of the opportunity cost of babies. When women enjoy the same access to education and professional advancement as men but face penalties for reproducing, then, unsurprisingly, they don’t. 
It's not quite clear if having higher fertility rates on a global level is good for us, given the global climate change and the likely consequences of trying to provide everyone on this planet the standard of living only some enjoy today.  But there is a fairness reason for equalizing the costs of childbearing between men and women, and it is also likely that the kinds of policies certain European countries have adopted --- paid parental leaves, guaranteed job on return to work, good childcare, more father involvement in childcare --- would all help people to have children at younger ages.  They allow women to both have children and remain in the labor force and because of the subsidies they allow younger families to have children at at time when their resources are otherwise stretched.

After reading the above quote, I immediately wanted to juxtapose it with the medical advice given earlier in the article:
If you’re a doctor, you see clearly what is to be done, and you’re sure it will be. “People are going to change their reproductive habits,” said Alan S. Brown, a professor of psychiatry and epidemiology at the Columbia University medical school and the editor of an important anthology on the origins of schizophrenia. They will simply have to “procreate earlier,” he replied. As for men worried about the effects of age on children, they will “bank sperm and freeze it.”
If "people" will have to procreate earlier but men can "bank sperm and freeze it." who are those "people" who simply must procreate earlier?

Now, medical advice is often given in that bark-bark form, of course, and physicians are not necessarily experts in incentives and so on.  But I have read versions of that from non-medical writers, and the gist of the advice is the same:  Women must simply adjust to their biological clocks or we all will face  horrible consequences.  It's the old all-whip-no-carrot rule which has the extra benefits that the costs of the necessary behavior would still be mostly born by women.