New research shows more American women are having children now than a decade ago, having more children on average, and starting their families later in life. In our book, these trends just make workplace flexibility even more imperative.
This latest data comes from a Pew Research Center report released January 18. For starters, Pew pinpointed the median age of first-time moms at 26, according to Fortune. In 1994, that median age was 23. The researchers attribute this change partly to a drop in teen motherhood.
Additionally, 13 percent of women in their mid-40s in 2014 had given birth before age 20, down from 22 percent in 1994; and 39 percent had given birth before age 24, down from 53 percent in 1994. (Admittedly, Pew’s analysis only takes into account mothers give birth themselves, though we all know that’s not the only definition of motherhood.)
Pew also found that more well-educated are becoming mothers than before. Motherhood rates among women in their early 40s have risen over the past 20 years by 6 percent for women with bachelor’s degrees, 8 percent for women with master’s degrees, and 15 percent for women with Ph.Ds or professional degrees.
And finally, Pew found that women are both more likely to have kids than before and having more kids on average than before. 86 percent of women had become mothers by the end of their childbearing years, up 6 percent from 2006, and those mothers had an average of 2.42 children, up from 2.31 in 2008.
So what does this mean for the economy? If more women are becoming mothers, then more women might be forced to leave the workforce to start a family—highly-educated women in particular, judging by these numbers—unless their employers offer workplace flexibility and foster work-life compatibility. As it stands, 30% of the most talented women leave the workforce after having a child, but 70% of that group would have continued working if they had access to flexibility. And that’s important because women’s participation in the labor force is crucial to a robust economy: according to a 2016 study called The Power of Parity: Advancing Women's Equality in the United States, closing the gender gap could grow the economy by $2.1 trillion, and each state could see a 5% boost at least.
Though Pew attributes the rise in median age of first-time mothers to a drop in teen motherhood, another reason could be that many aspiring mothers don’t have the leverage to request or negotiate flexibility in their jobs. Flexibility is often treated as a reward that is earned over time, and at entry-level it tends to be transactional—i.e. a perk for good performance. While a myriad of other factors may contribute to the rise in median age (like mounting student loan debt, for one), the inability to access or request the flexibility needed to work and parent simultaneously in the modern world may indeed play a role.
With more women having children than ever before—and having more children at that—employers must begin to embrace structured workplace flexibility. And perhaps one day women won’t feel like they have to choose between care and career, or delay one for the other.