Walking on a tightrope: The rapid increase in late motherhood

29 NOV 2018

Within the FWF project “Running against the clock” (RAC), two studies quantify the increase in late motherhood (beyond age 35) in low fertility countries. They ask how far women who want to have children late are constrained in doing so by the biological age limits to reproduction.

A sharp increase in the number of women becoming mothers at higher reproductive ages has taken place across the highly developed countries. In Austria, 22% of first children were born to women aged 35+ in 2014 against 7% in the early 1980s. Late childbearing is most common among highly educated women and the massive expansion of university education in the last decades has been the main factor behind the shift to later motherhood. Delayed childbearing was also driven by unstable labour market and deteriorating economic position of young adults across Europe, as well as rapid changes in partnership behaviour and the availability of highly efficient contraception.

In parallel, ever more women aged 35 or more wish to have a child. Childbearing intentions past age 35 are especially common among childless women. In Austria, 62% of childless women aged 35-39 wished to have a child in the future according to a survey conducted in 2016 against 21% of childless women surveyed in 1986. However, many of these women will face infertility when trying to realise their plans. Indeed, available data in Austria confirm that success in realising childbearing plans decreases with women’s age. At age 30, two-thirds of women who strongly intended to have a child in the short-term realised their plans within the next four years. At ages 42-45 women planning to have children with the same intensity had only negligible success.

Can women desiring to have children at later ages rely on assisted reproduction? Its use has been rising most rapidly among women past age 40. Still, even with assisted reproduction women of that age have low chances to get pregnant and carry the baby to term if using their own eggs. Their chances for successful pregnancy and delivery are much higher when using donor eggs from younger women or their own eggs harvested and frozen at younger ages.

Prospective parents face conflicting rationales for having children earlier or later in life. Biological and health rationales for early childbearing clash with economic and well-being rationales for later reproduction, which include higher family stability and higher happiness among older parents. Most women and men also aim to complete their education, get a job and achieve other goals before becoming parents. Having a stable partner remains a central element of wanting children and of having them.

The RAC project has received funding from the Austrian Science Fund (FWF) in 2016 and 2017 (P 28071-G22). It was led by Isabella Buber-Ennser at the Vienna Institute of Demography/ Austrian Academy of Sciences (VID/ÖAW).

Beaujouan, Eva (2018). Late fertility intentions and fertility in Austria. VID Working Paper 6/2018. Vienna: Vienna Institute of Demography.

Sobotka, T., & Beaujouan, É. (2018). Late Motherhood in Low-Fertility Countries: Reproductive Intentions, Trends and Consequences. In D. Stoop (Ed.), Preventing age related fertility loss, Springer International Publishing Switzerland, pp. 11–29.

Beaujouan, É. & Sobotka, T. (2017). Late Motherhood in Low-Fertility Countries: Reproductive Intentions, Trends and Consequences. VID Working Paper 2/2017. Vienna Institute of Demography.

Corresponding Research Areas: Family and Fertility

The Wittgenstein Centre aspires to be a world leader in the advancement of demographic methods and their application to the analysis of human capital and population dynamics. In assessing the effects of these forces on long-term human well-being, we combine scientific excellence in a multidisciplinary context with relevance to a global audience. It is a collaboration among the Austrian Academy of Sciences (ÖAW), the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis (IIASA) and the University of Vienna.