Hamilton Cain analyzes salaries and fertility rates to figure out the best time to start a family.
There was a time—at the dawn of the decade, before our children—when my wife and I walked upright like liberated apes, chins jutted out, confident. Back in the day when New York seemed an expensive playground, tailored for a young married couple thrilled with each other’s company, the antics of both cats, the whirl of each week. Jobs a-coming-and-a-going, but who gives a damn, there’ll always be one; credit card woes flaring up sporadically, like sunspots, but not enough to burn us. And the phone ringing constantly—friends with spontaneous invitations. Brunch at the Grange; martinis at the Temple Bar. Are you in? Are you in?
But the Golden Age invariably drew to a close. Each month my wife grew more impatient, more attuned to the drone of the clock in her head. Those matinees at Lincoln Center, leisurely dinners at our favorite Italian restaurant in Chelsea: the luster had tarnished somehow. For a while—two years, maybe three—I avoided the stilted conversations, her accusatory stares. But around my 37th birthday an internal switch abruptly flipped.
Thirty-seven: it seemed like the perfect age to start a family. But just how on target—or off—was I?
When and wherever men gather, casually or in formal settings, you can hear the anxious pique in their voices: do I have what it takes to be a good father? Fumbling for an answer to that daunting question, many men look to their wallets. The best thing I can do for my kids? Pay the bills!
Men tend to fixate on the role of provider, with income the primary metric to evaluate success. The trends lines justify this thinking. In the middle of the last decade, before the current economic turmoil, male participation in the American workforce peaked between the ages of 25 to 35, at a rate of 93.2 percent. Incomes ranged widely, however.
In 2008, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, 35- to 44-year-olds earned a median income of $65,839, while men in the 25- to 35-year-old bracket earned $48,749. On the other end of the spectrum, those below the age of 24 made less than $28,246. The big breadwinners were heads of households between the ages of 45 and 54, who pulled in an annual median pay of over $70,000.
But right around age 55, a man’s earning power starts to decrease, and something important happens for many fathers: it’s time to send his offspring of to college. That’s probably too late. Ideally, the youngest child would graduate from college when dad hits the age of 54 (assuming a standard age of 21 for most college graduates)—when the old man still has plenty of earning power. That being the case, a man would need to sire his final child around the age of 33. If he plans to have more than one child, he needs to start well before his thirty-third birthday—say, before the age of thirty. While you may struggle financially a little while the kids are young, you’ll be making money when the biggest economic impact hits you.
That said, waiting even longer to become a father does offer one distinct advantage. A recent survey, done by Lloyds TSB, found that fathers in their 40s and 50s are three times as likely to participate actively in their child’s rearing than their younger counterparts. A similar pattern is underway on this side of the Atlantic. In the mid-1990s, Stanford economist and education professor, Martin Carnoy, co-authored a landmark study on older fatherhood, along with his son, David, research that eventually morphed into a book, Fathers of a Certain Age. The elder Carnoy had re-married after a divorce from David’s mother, and he and his new wife adopted an infant daughter, transforming him emotionally while his grown-up son struggled with more ambivalence about his father’s second family.
The Carnoys found that older fathers were more established in their careers and had more time to devote to nurturing their children. As Martin Carnoy noted at the time, older fathers “have fought the workplace wars and are much less sanguine about the rewards of long work days. Almost everyone we interviewed was spending a lot more time with their children than they did as 30-year-old fathers trying to climb career ladders. Family plays a much more important everyday role in older fathers’ lives.”
For the past decade, the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (NICHD) has researched the question whether or not older men make better fathers. Since the release of its initial report in 2000, the NICHD has drawn direct connections between men with strong self esteem and their ability to tend to their children—the stronger a man’s image of himself, the better a father he proves to be. Not surprisingly, self esteem tracks the degree of stability in a man’s life. Again, men in their 40s, 50s, and 60s are generally on firmer footing in their careers, often own their own homes, and therefore can commit to the intricacies and tasks of childcare with a patience and attention to detail rarely found in their 20- and 30-something brethren.
So should men delay fatherhood as they focus on their careers? Should they strive with that single purpose in mind, inching up the corporate ladder, squirreling away a down payment on a brick Colonial in Scarsdale, putting aside end-of-the-year bonuses for private school? In 2004, the National Center for Health Statistics observed that roughly 24 in 1,000 men become fathers between the ages of forty and forty-four, an 18 percent jump in less than a decade. Surely there’s no harm in waiting until, say, your forties to start a family, right?
Wrong. Career, meet biology.