As you've no doubt heard before, people waiting until longer to procreate — which has increased dramatically in the last half-century — is not just some hermetically sealed Great Idea that will solve all your career, family and relationship probs and allow you to "have it all." Nope. It's a ticking time bomb with its own unique set of doomsday scenarios that will lead to the breakdown of human existence as we know it, a dystopian horror story of swelling numbers of dodderingly old parents, developmentally disabled children and a dwindling population. Last-minute shocker: It could possibly all be helped with men doing more of something, but will they? Could they? Should they? Do they even want to? Naaaah.
In a cover story for the The New Republic, Judith Shulevitz examines the future plight of the "grayest generation," and it's not a pretty picture. She says first-time mothers are now four years older on average than they were in 1970 (25.4 instead of 21.5). The average first-time father is also about three years older, around 27 or 28. That might make this statistically troubling duo seem all the more capable emotionally and financially of stewarding new life, but it's not without its environmental Trojan horse.
Sociologists have devoted many man-hours to demonstrating that older parents are richer, smarter, and more loving, on the whole, than younger ones. And yet the tragic irony of epigenetics is that the same wised-up, more mature parents have had longer to absorb air-borne pollution, endocrine disruptors, pesticides, and herbicides. They may have endured more stress, be it from poverty or overwork or lack of social status. All those assaults on the cells that make sperm DNA can add epimutations to regular mutations.
Mutations, epimutations — doesn't sound like all those good schools and excellent vacations from the well-heeled oldsters will help with that. All those environmental assaults on aging cells promise increased risks for developmental disabilities, to say nothing of the risks of fertility drugs. (Of note: In cases where pregnancies resulting in disability had been helped along by artificial reproductive therapies, no one is sure whether to blame the advanced maternal age or the Clomid.)
Developmental delays have increased by 17% from 1997 to 2008. A study cited found that 8.3 percent of children who'd been born as a result of reproductive therapies had delays, as opposed to 5.8 percent of children born naturally. Add to this the risk for developmental delays in older mothers without any fertility boosts, and it's a wonder any of us can stop shaking our heads with concern at all.
In fairness, Shulevitz's points all read like legit concerns to me, in the sense that everything has a cost. Such is the dance we do with nature every time we poke, prod or provoke it: It's a living, breathing thing which alters itself as often as we do. It is us. We are it.
Developmental delays are a fair concern for any society, but not necessarily the way Shulevitz indicts them. Many old, biased assumptions about living with developmental delays and the potential autonomy for children who have them are being reexamined on multiple levels, and are not the tragic death sentence they were once thought to be:
Furthermore, the majority of the other emotional disadvantages or resource limitations listed in the article from having kids at a later age are run-of-the-mill irritations and inconveniences that any parent today could face, such as not having grandparents around, not getting to have a big family, or dying before you feel your kid is really ready to face the world. Lifespans are averages, right? And many parents die in their 50s and 60s or sooner, leaving children behind still not even out of college.
Also, this gripe is dumb:
"Our children's friends confuse us with our own parents." Nope. Sorry. Doesn't count as a significant enough concern here. That one doesn't get to go on the list. Sure, it's no one's favorite thing, but we all get old and die. Vanity alert. Too bad.
The last two questions Shulevitz posits are also issues that are modern conundrums already, such as who will care for the growing disabled population? This is a concern for any parent of any age with a child that has special needs. And who will care for/replace the old people? This has been a question ever since the scattering of the extended family across the globe, and the extending of the human lifespan. The answer to both is obviously robots, and obviously cool ones.
We've explored the downsides, what are the upsides? Just one: Women get to have careers and stuff. This is listed almost as a casual aside which gets the least "ink," when it should really be the biggest point:
A REMARKABLE FEATURE of the new older parenting is how happy women seem to be about it. It's considered a feminist triumph, in part because it's the product of feminist breakthroughs: birth control, which gives women the power to pace their own fertility, and access to good jobs, which gives them reason to delay it. Women simply assume that having a serious career means having children later and that failing to follow that schedule condemns them to a lifetime of reduced opportunity—and they're not wrong about that.
No, they aren't. In fact, it's essential to women's full economic and political participation in the world that their opportunities are not reduced, and gaining "control" over the reproductive system through delayed child-having or not having children at all, is precisely how women have done this.
What becomes frustrating is how often we feel the need to rehash the "consequences" of women finding ways to subvert the system. No one expects those ways to be without consequence any more than extending the lifespan of men and women through artificial means, medicines, limb replacements and other assorted magic tricks will leave us with new, unexpected conditions.
But this train has left the station. If we can facilitate family planning in a way that ensures no one is left stuck holding the diaper bag alone, by all means. But clearly there was a problem getting everyone on board with this plan that necessitated the "deviation."
Shulevitz does mention programs that incentivize births with cash and actually work. Oh, and I guess men, equally complicit in the outcome here, could do that thing where they plan ahead and think about the health of their future children they may or may not ever have by freezing and storing sperm in advance.
The catch is, it costs a lot and they just don't seem to want to. The possibility of some distant future genetic mutation from their aging sperm isn't a good enough motivation to lock and load right now. "It has to be something more immediate," says a doctor cited in the article.
What? Oh, sorry, just trying to imagine what that luxury of not having to give a shit feels like. Anyway, there is always the other option: Organize our society around the maximum participation of all members. As Shulevitz points out, "We'd have to stop thinking of work-life balance as a women's problem, and reframe it as a basic human right." Or at least find a way to make it seem more immediate.