Is workplace reform and life-work balance the antidote to everything from the rise in autism to the crisis in Social Security?
That is the logical conclusion of an argument posed by Judith Shulevitz in the latest issue of The New Republic. Titled “How Older Parenting Will Upend American Society,” it notes that first-time parents are older than they have ever been –- women by four years since 1970, men by three years. After quickly sketching the reasons -- better forms of pregnancy prevention, more workplace opportunities for women, reproductive technology that extends the window of fertility -– Shulevitz quickly gets to the dangers.
Older parenting, she writes, is in effect a “natural experiment,” in which a key factor is changed -- in this case the age of parents -- and the effects can be measured across several generations. The babies born to those parents are different, as are the parents who raise them, and even the grandparents "who after all have to wait a lot longer than they used to for grandchildren.”
To date, much of the attention to those changes has been through the lens of parenting technique and philosophy, and even the increase in neurological diagnoses was often seen as an outgrowth of modern parenting. But in an interview with the Huffington Post, Shulevitz said the shift has consequences that go even deeper. “Something fundamental has shifted. It’s tempting to say all of this, older parents, kids with issues, are just a case of Upper East Side parents who are over-invested in their children and have too many resources at their disposal. But there’s too much real data that shows otherwise.”
Among the data:
- An increase in congenital defects due to artificial reproductive technology, which manipulates sperm and egg physically and hormonally. Much more research needs to be done, but a May study in the New England Journal of Medicinefound that 8.3 percent of children born with assistance from technology had birth defects, while the incidence rate was 5.8 percent in those conceived naturally.
- An increase in diagnoses of neurological disorders such as autism, schizophrenia, bipolar disorder and lower IQ, all of which have been linked to higher paternal age. Scientists no longer believe that men can have children indefinitely without consequence. Most recently, in the journal Nature in August, researchers estimated that the growth in the number of older fathers could be shown to be responsible for 30 percent of all autism diagnoses.
- Insufficient repopulation. Older parents have fewer children, and the time has passed when industrialized nations worried most about overpopulation. Now the opposite risk looms. As Shulevitz writes:
Countries that can’t replenish their own numbers won’t have younger workers to replace those who retire. Older workers will have to be retrained to cope with the new technologies that have transmogrified the workplace. Retraining the old is more expensive than allowing them to retire to make way for workers comfortable with computers, social media, and cutting-edge modes of production. And who will take care of the older generations if there aren’t enough in the younger ones?
Will fear of such risks –- of raising a child with disabilities, of creating a society that is top heavy so that there aren't enough younger workers to care for the elderly or pay into Social Security –- cause would-be parents to make different life choices and have children earlier?
Unlikely. After all, the available information hasn’t led men to stampede to clinics to save their sperm for when they are older, and it certainly hasn’t lessened the growth of the fertility industry nor led couples to start families when they are younger.
The only solution Shulevitz sees is to tackle the problem where it began. Women began to wait to have children when they entered the workplace in large numbers, so workplace reform is probably the only way to reverse that trend.
“When women enjoy the same access to education and professional advancement as men but face penalties for reproducing, then, unsurprisingly, they don’t,” she writes.
The only answer, it would follow, is to make the workplace “more baby-friendly”:
We’d have to restructure the professions so that the most intensely competitive stage of a career doesn’t occur right at the moment when couples should be lavishing attention on infants. We’d have to stop thinking of work-life balance as a women’s problem, and reframe it as a basic human right. Changes like these are going to be a long time coming, but I can’t help hoping they happen before my children confront the Hobson’s choices that made me wait so long to have them.