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Is it too late to catch up?

Comparing female and male fertility changes

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Mid adult couple expecting a baby while husband caresses the belly of his pregnant woman

Source: Ridofranz

Waiting longer to have children or not having children at all are two important features of low-fertility countries, and tend to vary between men and women and educational groups. However, although past research has extensively investigated female fertility by age and education, social differentials in male fertility have been less explored.

In a recent publication in Demographic Research, Marie-Caroline Compans (Ined and University of Vienna – Wittgenstein Centre) fills this gap by comparing female and male fertility changes across the 1950 and 1970 cohorts in France. More precisely, she proposes to consider a late first birth as a way of catching up after delaying parenthood over age 35 for women and age 38 for men (i.e. before it is ‘too late’ to conceive) instead of remaining childless at the end of the reproductive life.

She shows that, among high-educated groups, levels of childlessness are higher among men than among women. However, across cohorts, high-educated women tend to ‘catch up’ after delaying the first birth until age 35 or later, while lower-educated women tend to remain childless. There is slight evidence of such ‘catch up’ behaviours (first births at age 38 or over) among the high-educated men of recent cohorts (1965–70) but not enough to offset the increase in childlessness. This has to be confirmed in the future with more recent data. In contrast, low-educated men and women tend to become parents at earlier ages and therefore show low proportions of late first births. However, from one generation to the next, a tendency to postpone entry into parenthood is also observed. A key difference in comparison to higher educated counterparts is that catching up on this delay is rarely observed, particularly among men.

Despite the fact that women are more biologically constrained than men are to conceive, high-educated women show stronger evidences of catching up behaviours at late ages compared to men of the same social group. Irrespective of the sex, people who seem more likely to catch up with a delayed first birth are those who have more economic and social resources, while the least endowed show an increase in childlessness. Thus, her findings suggest that social barriers play a role in preventing people from entering motherhood or fatherhood at late ages. This can, for instance, be related to higher instability in partnership or professional histories of low-educated groups or to lower access to ART compared to the high-educated men and women. 

Author(s) of the original publication
Writers
Marie-Caroline Compans