The Birth Postponement Process

The process of birth postponement may be defined as a steady and continuous increase in the age at which women give birth to their first child. Some degree of birth postponement is now a widespread, and indeed near universal, phenomenon across the OECD countries, with differences between countries existing in the extent and the speed of the process. In Western, Northern, and Southern Europe, the age of first-time mothers is now in the 26 to 29 range, up from 23 to 25 years at the start of the 1970s. In a number of European countries (in particular Spain), the mean age of women at first childbirth has now even crossed the 30 year threshold.

The process is, however, not restricted to Europe. Asia, Japan and the United States are all seeing rising average ages at first birth, and the process can now been seen extending across the developing world to countries as far apart and different as China, Turkey, Iran and Chile.

Having children later was not an exceptional phenomenon in the past, when families were larger and women often continued bearing children until the end of their reproductive age. What is so significant about the recent transformation is that it is the age at which women give birth to their first child which is becoming comparatively high, leaving an ever more constricted window of biological opportunity for second and subsequent children should they be desired. Unsurprisingly high first birth ages, and rapid rates of birth postponement are normally associated with the arrival of below replacement, and even lowest-low fertility.

The association between rapid birth postponement and low registered Total Fertility Rates has become even clearer now that the postponement of first births has continued unabated over many years, and even in some cases for more than three decades. As such birth postponement has become one of the most prominent characteristics of fertility patterns in developed societies. A variety of authors (in particular Ron Lesthaeghe) have argued that fertility postponement constitutes the ‘hallmark’ of what has become known as the second demographic transition. Others have proposed that the postponement process itself constitutes a separate 'third transition'(Kohler, Billari, and Ortega). On this latter view modern developed societies exhibit a kind of dual fertility regime, with the majority of births being concentrated either among very young or increasingly older mothers. This is sometimes known as the 'rectangularisation' of fertility patterns.

A focus on the timing of first birth is important for understanding the overall trends towards later childbearing. While second and higher-order births are also being postponed, such posponement is mostly a consequence of first birth postponement rather than a manifestation of change in birth intervals. It is worth stressing that the determinants of delayed parenthood are frequently identical with the determinants of low fertility and non-parenthood.

A variety of explanations have been offered as to why young people postpone parenthood.

Increase In Educational Levels

In the first case such delay is normally associated with increasing levels of education. Post-industrial economies exhibit an ever-increasing demand for highly educated and flexible workers. For the individual, the pursuit of higher education constitutes the principal pathway for finding a stable job, securing a higher salary, and for increasing career prospects generally. As a result most young people remain enrolled in some form of education well into early adulthood. The average number of years in post compulsory education has now risen to 8.5 years in France, and up to half of all those in the 20-24 age group (and even more - between 50 and 55% - in Denmark, Finland, and France) are enrolled in full-time or part-time studies. Women have especially benefited from this development and now form more than half of the graduate and postgraduate students in a majority of European countries. Such educational expansion evidently has a direct implication for fertility trends.

Employment And Motherhood

A second explanation centres around the potential conflict which young women face between employment and motherhood. This conflict which is fuelled by rapidly increasing educational level and labor force participation among women, constitutes one of the most widely debated issues in contemporary fertility research. Traditionally, employment and motherhood were seen as incompatible roles, and Gary Becker’s argument that the increasing gender equality which gives rise to greater earning power for women increases both their labor force participation and the opportunity costs of childbearing, consequently reducing the demand for children. Recent studies, however, have increasingly found that the relationship between labor force participation and fertility is not a straightforward one and may be filtered through a number of additional factors. Looked at dynamically it is not hard to argue that compatibility between family life and labor force participation, as impacted by societal differences, cohort membership, age, and education all serve to modify this relationship.


As much as labor force participation per-se, security of employment is thought to be important, and the widespread presence of part-time and temporary employment at the younger ages are thought to persuade many to delay. This however is not an unequivocal view, since the availability of part-time employment may be thought to act in a pro-natal direction, making motherhood and employment continuity possible, and it may be rather the employment stability of the father which is the key factor.

Clearly both individual and societal conditions associated with uncertainty have a strong impact on fertility decisions. Mills and Blossfeld distinguish between (1) economic uncertainty, related to the “economic precariousness of an individual’s employment and educational enrolment circumstances,” (2) temporal uncertainty, and (3) employment relationship uncertainty, reflecting the type and precariousness of the employment contract.

In the Mills-Blossfeld framework, being unemployed leads to a high level of an individual’s economic uncertainty, whereas rising unemployment rates could lead to higher temporal uncertainty. Young adults are increasingly susceptible to all forms of uncertainty, especially with regards to their employment situation, which has a disproportionate impact on disadvantaged—especially less educated—social groups. In addition, the rapid pace of change, the unpredictability of social and economic developments, and the overflow of information create uncertainty about possible behavioural outcomes as well as about the probability of these outcomes, and about the amount of information to be collected for a particular decision. Unsurprisingly these authors suggest that the rapid rise of globalisation has been a key factor associated with increasing the levels of each of the these three types of uncertainty.


Hofmeister, Heather; Mills, Melinda; Blossfeld, Hans-Peter (2003), Globalization, Uncertainty and Women’s Mid-Career Life Courses: A Theoretical Framework. University of Bamberg, | Working Papers PDF

Lesthaeghe, R. and K. Neels. 2002. “From the first to the second demographic transition: An interpretation of the spatial continuity of demographic innovation in France, Belgium and Switzerland”. European Journal of Population 18 (4): 325-360. | online here

Kohler, H.-P., F. C. Billari, and J. A. Ortega. 2002. “The emergence of lowest-low fertility in Europe during the 1990s”. Population and Development Review 28 (4): 641-680.

Sobotka, Tomás. 2004. Postponement of childbearing and low fertility in Europe, Dissertation, University of Groningen | Available online here

The Fertility Bust, Charlemagne, The Economist, | February 9 2006
Low and Lowest-Low Fertility in Europe: Causes, Implications and Policy Options. H-P Kohler, F.C. Billari and J.A Ortega. University of Pennsylvania, 2005 | available online here.

Postponement of childbearing and low fertility in Europe | Power Point presentation by Tomas Sobotka

InterNational Council on Infertility | Information Dissemination

Ron Lesthaeghe's Second Demographic Transition Website

The Idea of a Second Demographic Transition in Industrialized Countries
Paper presented at the Sixth Welfare Policy Seminar of the National Institute of Population and Social Security, Tokyo, Japan, 29 January 2002, Dirk J. van de Kaa | available online here
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