Age and the sociology of fertility: How old is too old?

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Citation: Rindfuss, Ronald R., Bumpass, Larry (1978) Age and the sociology of fertility: How old is too old?.

Tagged: Sociology (RSS) fertility (RSS), sociology of fertility (RSS), age (RSS)


Notes: In this article Rindfuss and Bumpass argue that while age has a strong biological effect on fertility, biology is not the only way in which age affects fertility. There is also a sociological component. Age is an important consideration in a couple's decision with respect to the termination of fertility. Age also effects the choice of contraceptive method and the vigilance with which contraception is practiced. Age differentials in contraceptive failure may be interpreted as reflecting this component as well as differential fecundity.

The longer that a woman postpones childbearing, the greater the likelihood that she will get involved in other ego-involved activities that consume time and energy. Postponing childbearing increases that likelihood that other members of the woman's cohort will have completed their childbearing, creating a loss of important advice and support. There is also the concern that with increasing age, the partners may not have sufficient time and energy to cope with a child. There may be normative bounds prescribing the 'proper' time for childbearing.

Using data from the 1970 and 1965 National Fertility Study, the authors analyze whether or not the respondent intends to have more children, controlling for age, age of youngest child, parity, education, race, religion, age at marriage, and the length of the interval between marriage and the birth of the first child. The sample is limited to married women ages 25-34, who are without known or suspected fecundity problems. For any given parity, the proportion intending to have more children is strongly and inversely related to age. The effects of both age and age of youngest child are substantial even after all of the other variables are controlled.

In other analyses about one-third of the difference in fertility by age at first marriage can be explained by differential in sterility and unwanted births. The remaining difference may be interpretable in terms of the sociological effects described above. The authors test whether these effects are the same for second marriages. The regress intended fertility in the second marriage (sum of wanted births born in 2nd marriage and additional intended children) on age, age at second marriage, number of previous children, reason for previous marital dissolution, education of wife, education of current husband, race of wife, and religion of wife. The results show that mean fertility decreases as age at second marriage increases. Even when age at first marriage, length of first marriage, and length of marital disruption are controlled, age at second marriage retains its significance.

The authors conclude that changes or differences in the timing of fertility are associated with differences in the ultimate amount of childbearing. The sociological meanings of age as they affect fertility decisions are seen as the critical link in this relationship. The question how old is too old? is a question about the relative childbearing pace of one's peer, internalized ideal life cycles, and the expectations of significant others.