Delay and Grandparenthood

A couple of months ago, the NYT had a long piece about people waiting longer to have children. The age of first birth has been climbing steadily for decades and so there is nothing especially new in the piece. Nonetheless, because the topic pushes on certain sensitive cultural and family topics, it naturally generated a lot of reaction online.

One thing that is missing in the piece is a discussion of grandparents and this omission is common throughout the delaying-childbirth discourse, which is laser-focused on parents. This seems like a major oversight to me, not just because it ignores one of the parties affected by birth-timing decisions, but also because the life situation of grandparents has a significant impact on the parent.

In a society where the age of first birth is 20 years old, the generational structure looks like this:

  1. 0-year-old baby
  2. 20-year-old parent
  3. 40-year-old grandparent
  4. 60-year-old great-grandparent
  5. 80-year-old great-great-grandparent

When the age of first birth climbs to 30, it looks like this:

  1. 0-year-old baby
  2. 30-year-old parent
  3. 60-year-old grandparent
  4. 90-year-old great-grandparent

If it climbs up to 40, you get this:

  1. 0-year-old baby
  2. 40-year-old parent
  3. 80-year-old grandparent

Obviously not everyone in a society and in a family line gives birth at the exact same age, but these simplified scenarios illuminate the general point. Every year that you move the age of first birth back causes the age of grandparenthood to move back two years and the age of great-grandparenthood to move back three years. Waiting a few extra years before having kids is not much for a parent, but when you double or triple it, which is what happens to grandparents and great-grandparents, it can add up pretty quickly.

For grandparents and above, this development obviously has negative effects in that it limits the amount of time they get to spend with their grandkids and also reduces the quality of that time since older grandparents are not as physically capable as younger grandparents.

For parents of young children, this development can end up dumping way more caregiving demands on them. At any given moment, the youngest and oldest generation of a family line is probably in need of some kind of help. In scenario one above, where the age of first birth is 20, you have three intermediate generations between the oldest and youngest that are likely capable of providing some kind of net caregiving assistance. In the last scenario, where the age of first birth is 40, there is just one intermediate generation left to care for both a newborn and an elderly grandparent simultaneously.

As I said already, these scenarios are obviously a bit stylized, but they still help illustrate the basic point. As age of first birth rises, generations get spread out and parents get spread thin. The number of people in a family line who are in the workhorse age range declines and so they must carry more of the caregiving load.

I bring this up not because I think it is some kind of slam dunk in favor of having kids earlier rather than later, but because it seems like it should be considered in the delay discourse more than it is. It may not tip the scales in favor of one approach or another, but it should probably be included on the scales at the very least.