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What constitutes being an adult has changed dramatically over the last 50 years. There is an increasing trend for people to delay parenthood, with a growing number of women having their first baby at around the age of 40. This phenomenon has contributed to many developed countries having low fertility rates. Australia’s fertility rate has dropped below replacement level, (Australia Bureau of Statistics, 2006).

Development psychologist Erikson’s theory (1981) was that every person goes through eight stages to reach full development. Erikson recognized prolonged adolescence in industrialized countries, which he described as “Psychosocial Moratorium”. Erikson believed this time allowed for identity exploration without the burden of adult commitments. Erikson maintained that the development of identity was the basis for the commitments of adult life and was a foundation for later stages of development. Erikson first presented this theory in the 1950’s, since then this period has increased at a dramatic rate and now extends much later into adulthood and applies to many more people.

Development psychologist, Arnett (2004) contends that a new developmental stage of life has been created in recent decades and refers to this period as “Emerging Adulthood”. Arnett concurs with Erikson that this period is different from adolescence as it is a stage free from parental control and that young people make use of this extended time to explore identity issues. Arnett states that the majority of identity activity now takes place during this period rather than during adolescence.

Erikson and Arnett deemed that to assume adult life commitments, a stable and strong sense of identity must be formed to sustain these commitments.  According to Arnett (2004) life for young adults today is very different from how it was just a few decades ago.

In the 1970 the typical age for marriage was 21 for women and 23 for men. At this time it was normative for people in their early twenties to be married, completed their education, caring for a newborn child or expecting one soon, and settled into a long term job or the role of full-time mother. In the past young people were ready to enter adulthood and “settle down”.

Achieving the stability of marriage, home, and children was considered an accomplishment. Young women up until the 1960s had social pressure to get married. Being single was not a desirable social status for women past their early twenties. Few women attended university and the range of occupations available to women was limited. Young people in the past were restricted by gender roles and finances, which prevented them from using their twenties for exploration. 

In contrast, today’s young adults have unprecedented freedom and choices. Gender equality has meant that women’s occupational possibilities are now unlimited. Young people expect to find work that not only pays well but is personally fulfilling. This has led to frequent job changes as young people have the flexibility to change careers because they no longer have to financially support or care for a family at this time in their lives.

A reason for the shift in the ages when people get married is the introduction of birth control pill in the 1960s, which contributed to changes in attitudes in regards to sexual morals.

Marriage is no longer a priority, it is now acceptable to be unmarried and living with a partner. People are free to have many relationships before they settled down with the ‘one’ or they can choose to remain single without any social stigma. 

Arnett (2004) suggests there has been an extreme change in how young people value entering the adult roles. Young adults today see marriage, home, and children not as achievements but perils to be avoided.

Sociologist, Regnerus (2009) agrees with Arnett and comments that people today feel that marrying young is foolish and socially harmful. Regnerus research on young adults found many felt peer pressure against thinking of marriage until they are at least in their late twenties. Considering marriage when you’re 20 or 21 seems so sappy, so unsexy, so anachronistic”.  

Regnerus (2009), believes that the cause of this phenomenon lies less with young people than it does with their parents. Regnerus states that parents advise children to complete their education, establish their careers and become financially independent, before contemplating marriage. Prosperous societies encouraged young people to take an extended “Psychosocial Moratorium”.

Young people are persuaded to move into adult responsibilities gradually at their own pace. Until marriage and parenthood, people have no pressure and are free to explore a wide range of different possible future paths. Crawford (2006) states that a study by Quantum Market Research done in Australia (2004) showed that 52% of people between the 18 to 30 are “uncommitted” meaning they have no mortgage, no children and no long-term partner. 

Evolutionary Psychologist Charlton (2001) has named the recent phenomenon as “Psychological Neoteny”. Charlton research showed that people in modernised democracies are increasingly retaining many of the attitudes and behaviours associated with youth. Charlton believes the major cause of “Psychological Neoteny” is due to prolonged education.  Charlton (2007) states,

Increasing numbers of years of education is quantitatively the most important predictor of increasing age of the mother at the time of her first birth: among women graduates about half are aged thirty or older at the time of their first birth – a rise of 400% in 25 years…Marriage and parenthood are indicative of making a choice to ‘settle down’ … which… induce maturation of attitudes and behaviours. (p1)

Arnett, Charlton and Cannold all agree that a higher proportion of young people now go to university, more than ever before and the increase in the years devoted to education is causing the rise in the typical ages of marriage and parenthood. This could be due to the fact that better education increases economic aspirations which makes people reluctant to have children until they are financially well off.

Hugo (2006) states that people would be more likely to have the number of children they want if couples found it easier and less expensive to raise children.

According to Cannold (2005), a research study found that the more educated a women is the greater number of children she would like to have, but having an education will severely restrict a women’s chances of achieving the number of children she desires. 

Research by Cannold (2005) showed that women today are on an extraordinarily tight schedule. Many women do not find a suitable partner until a “big chunk” of their reproductive years are over. Cannold comments that by the time most women have got their education, travelled and established a career they have only a few years left to:

  1. Find Mr Right

  2. Get him to commit to a long-term relationship and

3.Product one or two children (p192)

Research by historian Cross (2008), showed there is a growing trend in delayed maturity in men. Men are not recognising their adult responsibilities to their partners, families, and communities. Cross’s states that he focuses on men, 

….because they are a bigger part of the problem.  Of course, women join the same trend…But childbearing and less confusion about the changing roles of females across the course of life makes the “girl-woman” less an issue. (online interview)

Men choose indulgence over restraint and entertainment over responsibility. Boyfriends who never commit to marriage, professional males who obsess over video games…husbands who prefer tinkering with their cars to family interaction. Too many opt to live like teenagers forever, shirking marriage and personal commitments while revelling in comic books, extreme sports, and the endless pursuit of personal experience and self-gratifying thrills. (Cross 2008, p32)

Many men who are in their thirties and older are not ready to commit to a relationship and family. Many men have not taken on traditional responsibility of family because they have no biological pressure to do so and in our contemporary society no longer have the social and moral pressure to do so.

Cannold (2005) states that men can and do father children in their forties, fifties, sixties and even beyond but unlike men, women do not have three-quarters of a lifetime to muse on the question of parenthood. 

The following comment in an article on the BBC news website sums up my experience and that of many of my friends in our thirties.

It makes me so mad to hear everyone banging on about women “leaving it too late” to have children. Like we have a choice! I am 32, single, and would love to meet a decent bloke, get married and have a child however, the total lack of any available, normal, decent men who can commit even to having a second date with a woman, never mind even think about a relationship, marriage and children, has left me in total despair! All of my friends are also single, and say the same thing, and trust me, it’s not even like we’re all that choosey! (Mairi, London, 2005)

Women having many options in their twenties contributes to women having less control over when they have children later in life because the older a women get the harder it is to find a partner who is willing to commit. According to the social psychologists Baumeister and Vohs (2004), women’s “market value” declines steadily as they age, while men’s tends to rise in step with their growing resources. Regnerus (2009) findings are similar, 

For women, age is a debit, decreasing fertility. For men, age can be a credit, increasing their access to resources and improving their maturity, thus making them more attractive to women. 

Women do have freedom and choices but once they are in their thirties when they start to get concern about their limited fertility their choices in regards to relationships have narrowed. Educated and financially stable men are in great demand and have many women available to them. Men are enjoying their freedom too much to consider committing to traditional adult roles. Women do not have the luxury to take an open-ended “Psychosocial Moratorium” because of the limitations in their fertility.

Our body clocks ensure we have to face reality in our 30s. Men of the same age can drift on in their extended adolescence for much longer. When it hits men …they can marry younger women and still go down the family path. (Reddan, 2002)

From my personal experience and from observations of women in my peer group, women do not want to wait until the last minute to have children but many are left little choice.

Much of the media when reporting on delayed motherhood blames a woman for putting their careers first before having children. For example, an article in the UK Times by

Lister (2005) headline states “Older mothers ‘epidemic’ a danger to health,

Doctors warn women not to put their careers before having children – they may live to regret it”.

Lister describes women as “…the have it all generation” and states that women seem unaware that they could miss out on motherhood if they put their careers first. There is no mention of how men are contributing to this development.

Regnerus (2009) remarks that his research showed that women are mature enough and ready to settle down before men. Many women spend their fertile years in relationships waiting for their partner to be ready to commit. Most men do want children but when they are ready, which becomes a problem for many women. 

In the past at around middle age, a person’s children may be starting work or university and leaving home but in our generation, this is now the age that a growing number of people are getting married. At a time women are approaching menopause is now the time many women are having their first child.

The National Center for Health Statistics (2009) reports that women giving birth for the first time at age 35 or older has increased eight-fold since 1970.  This may be feasible for men but for many women their fertility is declining rapidly. Contrary to what the media portrays, most women are well aware that their fertility starts to decline steeply once they hit 35 and by 45 only 1% of women will still be fertile. In this age bracket, many will require IVF, which is, painful, expensive and may not work.

According to the National Institute of Child Health & Human Development (2009), pregnancies at this age are harder to maintain and studies show that women in their forties have a rate of one and a half more miscarriages that women in their twenties. According to the Centre for Genetics Education (2006) by my age 41, the chances of having a child with a chromosome problem is 1 in 49.  

When I was pregnant, due to my age I was subjected to invasive prenatal tests. The tests involved having a very long needle inserted through my abdominal to collect cells. The initial (CVS) test found that my baby’s placenta had abnormal chromosomes, which if in the baby would have drastic health consequences.  A few weeks later I had a second invasive test, an amniocentesis to determine if the cells were actually in the baby. After waiting 2 weeks for the results the test established that the baby’s chromosomes were normal. Other complications older mother’s face is preeclampsia and gestational diabetes, which pose a danger to both mother and baby. I had preeclampsia causing high blood pressure, which caused my baby to have a low birth weight. Low birth weight can trigger health problems later in life such as diabetes. I also had to have an emergency caesarean, which is more common in older mothers.

Children of older parents are more likely to have schizophrenia or autism and if that was not enough researcher at the American Society of Reproductive Medicine (2006) have warned that women who delay having children until later in life risk damaging the fertility of their daughters. 

Being a mature parent does have advantages. A research study published in the Journal of Gerontology: Biological Sciences (2009) found women who give birth over 40 tend to live longer. According to Frankel & Wise (1982) it was found that older mothers with established careers are more accepting and less conflicted in the parenting role than younger professional women. 

They revealed strengths which were concomitant with their level of maturity and which seemed advantageous for their children’s development. These strengths include the capacity for restraint and discipline, a sense of competence, capacity to enjoy the growing child and greater ability than the younger parents exhibited to divide time more comfortable between their children and their social and professional lives…older parents were more financially secure and able to afford adequate childcare and education. (p2)

Advanced societies grant young people a long  “Psychosocial Moratorium” in their twenties and beyond without expecting them to take on adult responsibilities. Delayed maturation has become a developmental stage. More people are postponing marriage and then desperately rushing to have children before it is too late. This has led to very low fertility rates in all developed nations. The reasons for this delay are financial security, emotional maturity, waiting for a committed relationship before starting a family and influences from peers and parents.

It is not that people do not want marriage and children it is just they are not ready to take on adult obligations until they are much older than previous generations. 

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