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First-time parents are getting older before deciding to start a family.
The question is why?
Why do parents feel as though they ‘need to be ready’?
After all, our parents and grandparents didn’t feel this same sense of responsibility to have a successful career, be financially stable with savings accrued, or even to be in a long-term relationship.
So, why does this generation of parents (and parents-to-be) feel this increasing responsibility to be ’ready‘ and have their ’ducks in a row‘ before consciously deciding to have a baby?
And is there any benefit to waiting to start a family?
The Australian Institute of Family Studies (AIFS) reports that in 2019, 51 per cent of first births were to women aged over 30.
This is a significant rise from 15 per cent in 1981.
There was also a sharp decline of first-time mothers aged 20 to 24 years old from 49 per cent in 1961 to 15 per cent in 2019.
According to the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare (AIHW), in 2019, 29 per cent of first time mothers were aged between 35 and 39 (compared to 5 percent in 1991), and 28 per cent of first time mothers were aged 40 and over.
Women who wait to start a family in their 30s or older typically have higher levels of education, are married, live in metropolitan suburbs, have a strong attachment to the workforce through their career and have a combined higher family income.
“Indigenous women tend to start families at a younger age and lean towards having larger families.
“While migrant families tend to have children later on as they are usually re-establishing their life in Australia, however the experience can be quite diverse dependant on the individual’s cultural expectations of starting a family.”
While not as much research has gone into first-time fathers, today, the average age for a first time father is 33.1 compared to 28 in 1975.
The factors leading us to wait
“There are multiple factors that impact a couple’s decision to delay starting a family, and they all interact and influence each other,” Qu explains.
The first significant change is prolonged education, for both men and women, but particularly for women.
“Young people feel the need to get qualifications and be established in their career before they start thinking about settling down, getting married and starting a family,” says Qu.
“Prolonged education, like tertiary qualifications, is influenced by the labour market.
“It can be quite challenging to find a job with a decent wage to support a family without tertiary qualifications these days.
“This trend has been developing since the late seventies and early eighties.”
The second factor is a more recent trend – the rise in cohabitation.
“Cohabitation is increasing, but in cohabitating couples there appears to be less stability than marriage as couples more easily separate,” she says.
“So, there is still a preference for starting a family in marital relationships but people are waiting to enter these more formal commitments.”
The third factor is our attitudes have changed.
“Before, becoming a parent in your twenties was the norm, but now, becoming a parent in your early thirties is far more common,” Qu says.
“Starting a family is far more a conscious choice than previous generations where they almost had an automatic set of milestones to achieve in consecutive order – graduate school, start a job (or for some women they missed this step), get married, have children. Now people have different pathways and trajectories, from travelling, to returning to study, to part time employment.”
Fourth, family size makes a big impact on when to start a family.
“It was common to have three or more children, and in order to be able to have a large family, with gaps in between, parents needed to start their family earlier on,” explains Qu.
“Now, it’s far more common to have two children, or even just one, so young people feel they can wait longer before starting their family.”
Another factor is parents’ attitude toward their children has changed.
“Parents tend to put a lot more investment in and higher expectations for their children than previous generations,” she says.
“These investments, like high quality education, require time, energy and financial resources which parents want to accumulate before they become parents for the first time.”
Finally, the advancement in reproductive assistance technology provides people with a sense of elongating their fertile years.
“While the advancement in fertility assistance is wonderful, parents need to treat this sense of security with caution as it doesn’t always guarantee successful pregnancy later on,” Qu warns.
“It’s not only women’s fertility, but men’s fertility also decreases as they age and they aren’t immune to reproductive challenges.”
The pros and cons
Qu points out that the biggest benefit to starting a family later on, is that older first-time parents have better financial resources due to higher education levels, higher income and established and secure employment.
“This matters to parents and childrens wellbeing due to the available resources they have in those first few years,” she says.
Older first-time parents are also less likely to use harsh parenting styles.
“Their relationship quality tends to be better than younger parents,” Qu says.
While older first-time parents are more likely to adopt healthy lifestyles, from exercising more and having a greater intake of fresh food, Qu says that older first-time mothers tend to rate their health lower, particularly when it comes to feeling as if they don’t have enough energy to meet the demands of a young family.
“Older first-time mothers also report finding balancing family and work more challenging,” she says.
“It’s not surprising as they are more likely to be established in their careers, likely in a higher position and more likely to have that drive to maintain the status of their career, which in itself is demanding, while also juggling the high demands of a young family.”