The impact of women’s careers on childbearing age, in one chart

In the summer of life.
In the summer of life.
Image: Reuters/Neil Hall
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We know intuitively that, in developed economies, birthrates are falling as people have fewer children and are waiting until later in life to start families. For some, that’s because of career commitments earlier in life. For others, travel and education play a role, while others are waiting until they’ve found someone with whom they want to co-parent.

Stats just released by the UK’s Office for National Statistics gives one of the clearest pictures yet of these shifts. For the first time since the ONS began collecting data, more women are getting pregnant at age 30 or older than in their 20s:

In 2017, the most recent year for which the agency has data, there were 398,284 pregnancies to women aged 30 or over, and 395,856 pregnancies to women of between 20 and 29. (Not all pregnancies, of course, end in childbirth.)

Pregnancy in women under 20, meanwhile, fell to its lowest ever level. Kathryn Littleboy, the statistician responsible for the ONS data, said that teenage pregnancy rates, which have been falling consistently for 10 years and have more than halved since records began in 1990, may have dropped because of improved sex education, better access to contraceptives, and more young women staying in education.

Total conceptions in all three of these age brackets fell, part of a trend of declining overall birthrate that keeps the UK in line with other developed economies. Only one age group saw a net rise in the rate of conception: women over 40, for whom total conceptions increased by 2.6% from the previous year. Littleboy said the reasons behind the rise in women over 40 having more children could include the effects of rising living costs.

The overall trend of women getting pregnant later, however, signals a bigger shift for women, away from early marriage and motherhood, and toward establishing their careers. Fertile years don’t last forever, which is why it makes sense to compare one decade—the 20s, when most pregnancies used to occur—to the total of both the 30s and 40s.

Using the UK as a proxy for global trends, it seems likely that women entering the workplace and staying in it even when they have kids will mean a continued shift to pregnancy in the third and fourth decades of life.