Teenage pregnancy is so bad. Yeah? Says who? What’s wrong with a young woman having a baby? The uncritical adoption of this creed left, right, and center is one of my (many!) pet peeves about today’s society and social discourse. My honest opinion is that becoming a parent in that stage of life is underrated, assuming you have the money and the social system to support you. Very few people in their teenage years have that today, so it’s not wise for the vast majority to have a baby that early; nevertheless, we should not conflate a social malady with a biological one, much less a moral one.
The unsung Benefits of shorter Generations
I’m 28 years old now. Personally, looking back on it, I’d have handled parenthood about as well at 16 as I would now. Just think: if I had a child all the way back then, said child would be 12 now. A 12-year-old companion who I raised and would no doubt be a lot like me would be so nice to have in my life today. If every generation followed that path, including my own child, I’d become a grandparent at the age of 32. An underrated advantage of having a child that early is that not only the parents but the grandparents too have some youthful vitality left in them.
In stark contrast, my parents were 30 when I was born, and their parents were 40, meaning at my birth my grandparents were already 70. Looking back on it that kinda sucked.
An under-discussed social problem we face is the rise of the so-called “sandwich generation”, meaning people who have to care for aging parents and young children simultaneously. In our society, if your child has 70-year-old grandparents at birth (e.g. you have your child at 35 and your parents had you at 35, an increasingly common scenario) then it’s very likely the grandparents will be in their nineties by the time your child graduates college and establishes himself or herself independently. The chances during that period that the grandparents will become dependents and need care too are high, and just guess who will have to see to that: none other than you, the same person who also has to take care of your child! Because there is nobody else of any intervening generation to help you.
In a family structure and society where people have children at 16, then the grandparents are 32 at birth. By the time your own child reaches 16, the grandparents will only be 48; it’s very unlikely they will become dependents or need any special care during that period. Indeed, peak earning years would still be ahead of them. The grandparents’ own parents, i.e. the child’s great-grandparents, would be 48 at the birth of your child. By the time the child reaches 16 they’ll be 64. Old, but probably not too decrepit yet. Only their parents, i.e. your great-grandparents, the child’s great-great-grandparents, would likely need care; they’d be 64 at the birth of your child, and 80 when the child turns 16. The child’s great-great-great-grandparents may well still be alive at birth, since they’d be 80, but when the child turns 16 they’d be 96; they’re the likeliest ancestors still around as of the birth to die during your child’s childhood.
To clarify, while you’re taking care of your own child, the aged members of the family could be helped out by your parents, your grandparents, and even your great-grandparents. There’s an excellent chance your own parents could focus on helping you raise your children without the family even being strained at all by the needs of the elders, since they’d still have one or two generations around to help them.
Delayed Parenthood: more suitable for Grandparenthood?
In a culture of this nature the thirtysomething grandparents would be expected to have a large hand in the raising of the children, since they’re able to offer a more mature and experienced perspective. This is often cited as a point in favor of having children in your thirties, and sure, this is an advantage of “delayed motherhood”, but really, such qualities are better suited for grandparenthood than parenthood.
Being better financially established is perhaps the most often cited advantage of delayed parenthood, but the same logic applies here too; there’s no particular reason, especially in a low-fertility world where people have just 1 or 2 kids (equaling just 1 to 4 grandkids), why the grandparents couldn’t provide most of a child’s financial upkeep. Again, an argument could be made that financial prowess is fundamentally better applied to grandparenthood than parenthood.
A few Showstoppers; and possible Solutions
I paint a rather rosy picture of teenage parenthood, but there are a few showstoppers. For one, there’s a certain path dependency. Transitioning from a system where the parents provide to where the grandparents provide would require one generation to pay for both their own children and their own grandchildren, a doubly heavy burden, though if 16-year-olds could be breadwinners again (compressing education and training could do a lot for this), which is something we really should be doing anyway for a variety of reasons, it wouldn’t be nearly as much of a problem.
This also helps to solve another potential showstopper: the necessity of a more extended family. The nuclear family model places a huge load on just one or two adults, but it requires you to trust and rely upon fewer people. Requiring grandparents to be the providers introduces another point of failure; if the teenage parents can be breadwinners too then if something goes wrong with the grandparents it just defaults to a modern-style nuclear family. A financial hit, but nothing catastrophic.
We should also keep in mind that when the children are born in this scenario their great-grandparents are just 48, aging up to 64 until they reach maturity, so they provide another possible source of support, especially since they’re likely in their peak earning years.
The biggest showstopper of all, however, is finding a partner so soon after puberty. The average girl experiences menarche (the earliest time she can conceive a child, though full maturity so pregnancy has its lowest risk (biologically-speaking) takes another couple years) a few months after turning 13, and this is also roughly the age at which they start to have any sexual interest in boys. Realistically that’s about as early as the median person is going to be dating. Unless we go full child betrothal, which…ugh, please no. No, the way to do this would be to make going on dates and meeting people for marriage essentially people’s full-time job from puberty onward until engagement, which would be possible in principle for society to provide.
Parents and perhaps grandparents taking a much heavier role in setting up dates for the young people would help a lot, as would a very busy social calendar for debutantes (think: balls every day), and going on extensive travel during this period. The last item is vital for replicating a key advantage of meeting spouses in college and later: sampling matches from far beyond your local area, where partners might be suboptimal for you (I build all this into my college ships concept too, and not without good reason).
With all this in place and the median person starting at 13, it’s realistic for the median person to meet someone they really like and get married (and start on having a baby) by 16, which is a 3 year stretch of time. 1000 days to meet people, which if it’s your only job and everyone your age is also putting themselves out there should be plenty. Dance with and chat up 10 new people a day, that’s perhaps 10,000 people.
Obviously that’s a rather different sort of social system from what we have, but again, it’s the sort of thing that a modern society could provide in principle. If anything the improvements in transportation and information technology should make such matchmaking easier than it was in the old days, yet the general consensus is that dating is far harder than it used to be. A puzzle equal to why we’ve seen upskilling instead of deskilling in the labor force.
Anyway, another route would be normalizing single motherhood by choice. If you have the resources to have a child but no partner, using a donor gets you a baby just as well. Choice moms are most often pushing 40, since usually people want to give themselves a chance to find someone rather than start a family all alone, but it’s entirely possible in a society much more supportive of this option that a lot more women in the teenage bracket would go for it. This would be especially true in a society that practiced a matrilineal avunculate (a la the Mosuo of southern China), where husbands normally just visit the mother and the paternal role is primarily assumed by the mother’s brother (or closest female-line male relative), making a romantic partner a nice-to-have rather than a bedrock necessity, since your children will have a normal mother-and-“father” household regardless.
My Ideas are Realistic!
That last bit would be a wholesale change in our family structure, which seems somewhat unlikely, but the rest of it is within reach if we had a great-awakening-tier social movement that addressed this issue. People don’t truly realize how cruel and ineffective our current “life script” (as one might call it) truly is.
Consider that if it was normal to have your baby at 16, they’d be fully grown by 32. 32 is the age at which people in our society are very often just starting to get married and have children. This means that in the time it currently takes between biological maturity and social maturity — i.e. being fully educated, established in a career, get married, and have children — you could have had a child and raised them to adulthood. That’s an insane amount of time that we demand our young people basically waste.
Young Motherhood: the Solution to Leaning Out?
One interesting upshot of the very different life script explored in this post is that people become empty-nesters in their early to mid 30s, freeing up more time and energy for their careers around the same time they’re just really getting started today; in other words, people wouldn’t even miss out on all that much time pursuing their careers than they do today!
It makes more sense anyway for women to focus on sex and babies in youth and working as professionals in middle age; fundamentally, you can work in an office much later in life than you can birth a baby. Again, the obstacles are social and financial, not biological. If our society supported this alternative life script, women could have their child at 16, stay at home until 32, and then enter the career track; they could easily become established as professionals by 40 and keep working for another few decades.
Sure, the men would have a 16-year head start on them, but under the current life script women can only half-focus on their career in their thirties and forties; starting a decade later but being able to lean in fully when they do start may well turn out better. Especially if your benchmark is today’s norms; if you have a baby at 16 they’d already be 6 by the time you turned 22, so if you only entered the workforce then (a semi-viable proposition) you still wouldn’t be missing out on any years of work experience. That’s crazy!
My Ideas are seriously supported by Experts!
In a society of this nature it might be the norm for women to start working part-time sometime around their mid twenties, and ramp up to full time only in their thirties when their children are grown. A similar concept has been proposed by psychologist Laura Carstensen, who’s none other than the director of Stanford University’s Center on Longevity; she recommends that a better life course would be for people to work part-time (at a career, an apprenticeship, higher education, or whatever) from their youth and only ramp up to a full-time career at around age 40. She additionally recommends that people should semi-retire, i.e. return to part-time status, sometime in their sixties and only fully retire around age 80.
Under the model I’m exploring here, where the average age at first birth is 16 rather than in the twenties or thirties, a ramp-up to full-time is feasible as early as around age 30, but on the other hand even under this model saving the lean-in phase for age 40 or so has advantages. If it’s the norm to have your child at 16, your grandchild is born at 32; that gives you 8 years to be a grandmother before you ramp up to full-time work, which actually seems about right (children become somewhat more independent around that age).
Honestly, the social model outlined here would work just fine, probably much better than what we’ve sleepwalked into in real life. Aside from encouraging teenagers to couple up and become wives and mothers, husbands and fathers, and compressing basic education so it’s complete by the age of 13, it wouldn’t even offend any modern sensibilities. No drastic changes to the family structure or the economic system would be necessary, and it would solve so, so many problems. Hmm…interesting.