People have children later in life for a variety of reasons. On the one hand, people may choose to live a ‘child-free’ life in young adulthood, or unconsciously delay a first birth by focusing on other activities, including their education, career, and leisure activities. A later birth may then come with greater professional and emotional stability and higher economic and social resources. On the other hand, delayed childbirth may be due to constraints such as the lack of a partner or a job, or difficulties for young people in balancing their studies/work and family plans, particularly in countries where financial and childcare support for families is limited.
With advancing age, it is more difficult for people to have the children they may wish
As births are postponed, the intention to have a child at a later age has become more common in most European countries, especially to have a first child. In Austria, for example, the proportion of women aged 35-39 wishing to have a child increased from 6.5% in 1986 to 24.4% in 2016 (Beaujouan 2022). However, the chances to have the wished child steadily decrease as people get older, potentially inducing a rise in involuntary childlessness or unfulfilled fertility desires. As unfulfilled fertility desires are associated with greater psychological and emotional distress, this constitutes an increasingly important reproductive health issue.
Some individuals are also disadvantaged in realising their fertility intentions. At late reproductive ages, individuals with lower education are more likely to give up on their intentions to conceive and to remain involuntarily childless, while those with greater economic and social resources are more likely to catch up on the delay of birth before it is biologically or socially ‘too late’ to conceive (Compans 2021).
Young people lack awareness of physiological constraints
On the social side, obstacles are often related to the breakdown of partnerships and singlehood at later ages, or to social norms that define age limits for childbearing around the forties for women and the mid-forties for men. On the biological side, as men and women age, pregnancy complications and adverse pregnancy outcomes become more frequent. In addition, women’s fertility declines from their thirties onwards. Men’s physiological ability to have children also declines with age, but this process starts later and to a lesser extent than in women. Yet, at young ages, people are not fully aware of these aspects and feel most concerned about avoiding an unwanted pregnancy. Policies should therefore aim to better inform teenagers or young adults about these physiological constraints to late childbearing before they reach critical ages. This could be done by incorporating fertility awareness into educational programs or campaigns.
Assisted reproduction technologies are no miracle solution to age-related infertility
Within this context, the use of assisted reproduction has gained momentum. It consists of technologies that can help some people – but not all – to have children when facing infertility problems. Seeking medical help is often a demanding path with financial costs, depending on the regulations in place. In addition, the use of ART without egg donation from younger women does not compensate for increasing infertility with age. Like the natural capacity to have a child, the success rate of ART decreases quickly with age, with a 15% chance of success of each cycle at age 40 and 3% at age 44 (calculated for the United Kingdom) (Beaujouan and Sobotka 2022).
The reality is that men and women who delay their fertility desires to have children become at greater risk of not realizing it. Although ART can allow some people to realize them at late reproductive ages, it is not a ‘miracle cure’ for age-related infertility.
To sum up, there is a tension between the increased opportunities that come with delaying birth at a younger age and the challenges that arise in late reproductive ages, particularly due to physiological limits to realising one’s fertility aspirations. Current family policies aim to reduce the individual costs associated with birth, which possibly limits the extent of constrained postponement. At the same time, there is growing recognition that men and women need to be better informed about the physiological constraints of delaying childbearing and the limited ability of ART to offset them. Both should be addressed to fully support people with different economic and social resources in having the number of children they want.
Learn more about the project "Later Fertility in Europe" here.
This work was supported by the Austrian Science Fund (FWF) (Grant Nos. P28071-G22 and P31171-G29).
- Beaujouan, É. (2022). Late Fertility Intentions Increase over Time in Austria, but Chances to Have a Child at Later Ages Remain Low, Reproductive Biomedicine & Society Online 14: 125–39. doi: https://doi.org/10.1016/j.rbms.2021.10.002
- Beaujouan, É, & Sobotka, T. (2022). Is 40 the New 30? Increasing Reproductive Intentions and Fertility Rates beyond Age 40. In D. Nikolaou & D. Seifer (Eds.), Optimizing the Management of Fertility in Women over 40 (pp. 3-13). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. doi: https://doi.org/10.1017/9781009025270.002
- Beaujouan, É. (2020), Latest-Late Fertility? Decline and Resurgence of Late Parenthood Across the Low-Fertility Countries. Population and Development Review, 46: 219-247. doi: https://doi.org/10.1111/padr.12334
- Compans, M. C. (2021). Late Motherhood, late Fatherhood and Permanent Childlessness in France: Trends by educational level and Cohorts (1950–1970). Demographic Research, 45(10), 329–344. doi: https://doi.org/10.4054/DemRes.2021.45.10