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Jewish Journal

It keeps you young

by Pini Herman

January 26, 2012 | 1:58 pm

Jonathan, my older son, recently cradled our 7-year-old Cavadoodle in his arms and made dog-year calculations in his head.

“I don’t think Pawsy is going to have children, because he’s 49 years old,” he said.

Then he looked at me. “Although you had me when you were 46,” he added.

I’m a 60-year-old father with two young boys — 14 and 6 years old. My Orthodox Beverly Hills day school classmates and my older brother, by three years, all have grandkids now. A few of the ultra-Orthodox ones even have great-grandchildren.

When Joey, my youngest, graduates high school, I’ll be 72. I’m looking at actuarial charts along with sales ads at Gap Kids and The Children’s Place.

But I’m not the only older parent picking up my kid at kindergarten. More couples are having children later in life.

The average age of parents at first birth has been increasing in many developed nations. In the United States, the average age of first-time mothers increased by 3.6 years, from 21.4 years in 1970 to 25.0 years in 2006.

The trend of delayed first births is highly associated with educational attainment. Researchers Harriet and Moshe Hartman found that among Jews, women who had their first child after they were 35 years old were seven times more likely to have attained a doctorate or professional degree than Jewish women who had their first child before the age of 21. Women with educational attainment tend to marry men often two to five years older than they are, hence older fathers. This trend is likely to continue as Jewish women’s educational attainment continues to rise. Along with the longer delay of first births, there is an increasing likelihood of children being born to these relatively older couples.

Women’s educational attainment began to surpass men’s in the mid-1980s, and other research suggests that the reversal of the gender gap in education among men and women quickly translated into a reversal of the education gap among husbands and wives. At nearly the same time as women’s college completion outpaced men’s, newly married wives’ educational attainment began to exceed their husbands’. By 2003, 55 percent of married couples in the United States with different education levels were those in which the wife’s education exceeded her husband’s, up from less than 40 percent in the mid-1970s, according to a 2005 study, “Trends in Educational Assortative Marriage From 1940 to 2003,” by Christine R. Schwartz and Robert D. Mare.

The Hartmans found that Jewish wives were also more likely to have the same level of education as, or higher than, their spouse. When these highly educated women have their children is changing as there is evidence that marriage and childbearing is becoming more compatible with higher education and going to work. In addition, the proportion of highly educated women with two or more children has increased in the last decade. The spacing between the children might also be increasing. Even as the age gap between parent and child is fluctuating, so, too, could the age gap between siblings. 

The likelihood of witnessing the death of someone in the close family or social circle is significantly higher for these kids, but when my boys fret about my older age and whether I will die, I can point out that my life span might be similar to that of their grandfather, who passed away three years ago, living to 10 weeks shy of his 100th birthday.

Children of older parents come into direct contact with a much richer and greater time span of personal histories. I’m able to tell my boys that when their grandfather, who was present for most of their lives, was a child in 1917, he was using the dim light of a burning oil lamp to read and study by. The reason: Brighter-burning kerosene lamps were in short supply because of World
War I.

And an older parent (or grandparent) doesn’t mean they’re less active. Even now, my 88-year-old mother attends my boys’ activities and cooks their favorite foods each week for Shabbat dinner.

When I was born in Europe after the Holocaust, my father was 43. When I was 17, my 60-year-old father taught me how to ice skate. He fell during the lesson, but got up and continued to teach me for over an hour. Only years later did I learn from my mom that he had broken a rib in the fall. My dad was in pain for weeks and suffered in silence.

At 60, I’m teaching my youngest child, who is 54 years younger than I am, how to skateboard. I’m reminded of my father teaching me to ice skate, and I think I understand why he continued after the fall: It keeps you young.

Pini Herman has served as assistant research professor at the University of Southern California’s geography department; adjunct lecturer at the USC School of Social Work; research director at The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles, following Bruce Phillips in that position; and is immediate past president of the Movable Minyan, a lay-lead independent congregation in the Third Street area. Currently he is a principal of Phillips and Herman Demographic Research. He can be reached at pini00003@gmail.com.

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