According to a new Gallup poll, the majority of Americans think that in an ideal world, women should start having children by age 25. Fifty-eight percent of the more than 5,000 people surveyed say that women should have children in their late teens or early 20s, while only 43 percent of respondents say that men should have children by age 25.
From the vantage of my educated urban bubble, where at 30 I was one of the youngest first-time moms in my 60-person mothers' group, these findings are surprising. But when you poke just a little deeper beneath the headline of that Gallup poll, you’ll find that attitudes about the ideal age of motherhood vary sharply by educational level. Americans who are college educated are much more likely to think women should wait until they are 26 or older to have children. This is borne out by behavior, not just opinion: Only 3 percent of moms with a college degree give birth before age 25, and a full 31 percent of all mothers with a bachelor's degree are over 35 when they have their first kid.
While we all know fertility does decline with age (though perhaps less rapidly than we’ve been told), it’s not good news that the majority of young people (60 percent!) ages 18-29 still think women should have kids by age 25. Not because some people aren’t mature enough to be parents in their early 20s, but because very few millennials, who came of age into a recession, can support children in their early 20s. As of now, the unemployment rate among 20- to 24-year-olds is almost 13 percent. An obvious reason birth rates hit a record low for women 25 and under in 2011 is because the recession caused a lot of young women to realize they could not afford to be mothers in such a down economy.
Furthermore, there’s a lot of evidence that the gains in wages over the past few decades have been made by childless women and that the longer women wait to have kids—up to a point—the better it will be for their lifetime earnings and financial security. The fact that less educated young people still think that women should have children young isn’t good news for our already yawning class divide. The younger you have kids, the more difficult it is to pursue higher education, and according to a Pew study, “What is irrefutable … is that on average the more education a woman has, the better off her children will be.”