Saturday, August 31, 2013

How Older Parents Are Wrecking The World

It's that time of the year again when we talk about too old parents having children.  I'm annoyed by this piece in the New Republic, even though it might make many good medical points.  My annoyance is based on four factors:

First, the article is a vast exaggeration of what's going on.  A vast exaggeration.  Take the title:

How Older Parenthood Will Upend American Society The scary consequences of the grayest generation.

We have the upending of the society!  We have the scary consequences!  And yet there's this:

That women become mothers later than they used to will surprise no one. All you have to do is study the faces of the women pushing baby strollers, especially on the streets of coastal cities or their suburban counterparts. 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.

Bolds are mine.  What that paragraph supports is not the upending of the American society.

Second, the story is written from an upper-class point of view and largely reflects the concerns of those who must choose between further education and having children early.  Delaying childbearing for those reasons is NOT the largest global reason for the reduced fertility rates in many countries. It may be a consequence of wanting a smaller family size, but worldwide fertility rates are not dropping because women everywhere are delaying childbirth for careers!

Third, the story conflates fertility rates and late births in a way which leaves me feeling that the author wants everybody to have lots of children, and that the way to do that is to begin at menarche or so, given that the body then is less likely to have accumulated toxins or mutations or whatever might make the children of older parents more likely to have problems.

Indeed, the story tries to press all the panic buttons together!  Though I must give it kudos for pressing them on men, too.  Usually these articles only press women's panic buttons (We women always do everything wrong:  If we are black, we have children too young and without husbands.  If we are white, we don't have enough children or too late, at least if we are not poor.  If we are white and poor,  we also have children too often without husbands and so on.  I'm going to stop reading this crap.)

Fourth, this article contains something which I've noticed before in these kinds of articles.  Here's an example.  It's a subtle one, following some time after an assertion that feminists really are celebrating older parenting everywhere!

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.”

Bolds are mine.

What's irritating about this?  It pays no attention to people's life circumstances, the absence of paid maternity leave, the difficulty of establishing a family in one's early twenties, the absence of protections for women who take a maternity leave from work and wish to return to the same position in their career paths, the absence of support for daycare and so on.  And note that the people who have to "procreate earlier" are really not all people, because some can bank sperm and freeze it, assuming they can afford that.

I've read similar opinions in earlier old-mother articles, and they always give orders like that, pretty much.   Sorta shape-up-or-ship-out.

At the next step in the article the author gives us the usual good advice about what's needed for that earlier procreation to happen.  That advice (of which the first paragraph is aimed at only the educated upper classes, by the way) will be ignored, as it has been, for decades:

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.
More immediately effective are policies in place in many countries in Western Europe (France, Italy, Sweden) that help women and men juggle work and child rearing. These include subsidized child care, generous parental leaves, and laws that guarantee parents’ jobs when they go back to work. Programs that let parents stay in the workforce instead of dropping out allow them to earn more over the course of their lifetimes.
Compare that to the medical advice that "people" will just have to procreate earlier.

OK.  After picking through all that, the piece has good points about the fact that having children late in life carries larger risks than having them early.  To what extent epigenetic studies about mice or rats directly translate into humans is unclear, however, and the article would have much benefited from placing the numbers it quotes into a proper framework.

It's not terribly informative to tell us that some condition becomes more likely with parental age if we are not told what percentage of all children the condition applies to and, thus, what the actual increased risk might be.  Given that most people still have children relatively young, the societal upending the post predicts doesn't seem called for.  At least I wanted to know exactly what percentage of American men and women have their first child after the age of, say, forty.

Just to remind you again, the average maternal age at first birth in the US is 24.5 years, not forty years.  Thus, to write about the scary consequences of the graying generation is like telling us that the sky is falling.  But that treatment is good for clicks, advertising income and the survival of a struggling newspaper, right?