As birth rates decrease, baby boomers wait longer to be grandparents

Mary Jo McCoy enjoyed some time with granddaughter Maggie Epperly, 14 months, at Maggie’s Lee’s Summit home.
Mary Jo McCoy enjoyed some time with granddaughter Maggie Epperly, 14 months, at Maggie’s Lee’s Summit home.

A funny thing happened as 20- and 30-somethings decided to hold off on marriage and children: grandparents-in-waiting grew older. Sometimes a bit anxious.

“I was thinking it was never going to happen,” says Mary Jo McCoy of Lee’s Summit.

McCoy became a grandmother for the first time last year and for the second time a few weeks ago.

She’s 67, but if you do the math, she could have been a grandmother a couple decades ago. McCoy was 22 when she and her husband, Mike, started their family of four children.

Grandparenthood has been everything she imagined it would be.

“It’s wonderful to see your children with their children,” she says. “It’s hope and it’s love.”

And nowadays, it can be a wait.

For one thing, fertility rates dropped for several years following the 2007 recession. But a longer trend is at play: Young adults, especially college-educated professionals, are choosing to start families later.

The percentage of women who have their first baby at 35 has grown significantly in the past four decades. And the percentage of women in their early 60s without grandchildren is projected to more than double in a few years compared with the 1990s.

In terms of family choices, the McCoys’ adult children aren’t unusual. None of them considered starting families at 22.

The oldest, Sean, and his wife, decided not to have children. Son Tim is 40 and went back to school as an adult, during which time he and his wife decided to hold off on children. They’re expecting in November.

McCoy recently returned from New York to visit her second granddaughter. Son Carl, the new dad, is 39.

Daughter Gina Epperly, 35, lives in Lee’s Summit, and she and her husband had the McCoys’ first grandchild last year.

They say there’s nothing like the blessings of grandchildren. And if you’re the one waiting for a few, it seems like that’s all anybody is saying. To you. Pretty often.

David Ekerdt, sociology professor and director of the University of Kansas Gerontology Center, says folks with adult children are frequently alerted to the awesomeness of grandparenthood by their peers. It happens to him.

“I’ve had people tell me that my life is basically not complete until I have grandchildren,” he says. “They take out their iPhones and show pictures of their grandchildren. They’re just trying to express their happiness.”

The subtle pressure can trickle down. Some folks ask their newly married children not-so-veiled questions such as, “Is there any news yet?”

That’s understandable, if not tactful, Ekerdt says, but parents can’t script the lives of their adult children. Many people have an idealized “life course” running in their heads, he says, a map of the way life should proceed and a schedule of when it should happen.

Older adults still waiting for grandchildren can feel behind schedule.

In terms of life course, though, he says the more important concern is this: What age is best for one’s adult children to take on the responsibilities of parenthood?

“For some it could be in their early 20s, but it might be a great idea that they wait until their later 30s,” Ekerdt says.

After World War II, people were more likely to become grandparents than in earlier decades because they were living longer, and they could expect to be grandparents by their 50s because their children were marrying fairly early, says Deborah Smith, associate professor of sociology at the University of Missouri-Kansas City.

But in more recent decades, middle-class couples took control of their fertility, the timing and the number, and many married later. A more recent uptick has been recorded in couples who choose not to have children at all.

“Young adults may be looking at the struggles their parents had,” Smith says. “They look at their financial situation, at things like student debt.”

Marriage timing and birth-control options can delay grandparenthood, but another historical change can serve as an offset: People are living longer, and they’re healthier at an older age.

In fact, many older adults are upbeat about the quality of life in their later years.

In a survey by MetLife Mature Market Institute, a large majority of the oldest baby boomers, those in their late 60s, rated their health as “excellent.” On average, they wouldn’t classify themselves as “old” until age 78.

Staying in good health is important to Diane Wubbenhorst of Overland Park as she and her husband look forward to their first grandchild.

Wubbenhorst is 62 and her husband Steve is 65. Their daughter got married last year at 28, and Wubbenhorst says they have no problem if the newlyweds wait a few years before starting their family.

After all, she and her husband did the same. They had their daughter when they were in their 30s, after being married four years.

“I think it’s important to have that time together,” she says.

But it’s hard not to be mindful of what some call the biological clock of grandparenthood.

“We’re taking ‘health awareness’ a lot more seriously these days,” says Wubbenhorst, noting that the couple has always exercised and plans to stay active. “The important thing for us is to concentrate on our health and make sure we’re ready when they’re ready.”

Ekerdt says older grandparents have this going for them: Those who are retired have more free time to focus on things other than work, including grandchildren.

And those who can devote time to grandparenthood can see it as a kind of second chance, says Smith of UMKC. They may be supportive of grandchildren in ways they weren’t or couldn’t be for their children.

Smith has seen this with her own father, who was a busy research scientist when she was growing up. He’s 81 now and aware that he missed things as a dad. He wants to spend time with his grandchildren and dole out more “I’m proud of you’s” than he did with his children, she says.

“He’s showing a side of himself to his family that he didn’t show before,” she said. “I’m glad for him.”

Studies show that time devoted to the grandparent-grandchild relationship can be beneficial for all.

Bert Hayslip, psychology professor emeritus at the University of North Texas, says the types of grandparent-grandchild relationships are many and varied, so making generalizations is tricky. But benefits can accrue to those who want to make the most of the relationship.

For some older people, having grandchildren can be a buffer against fears associated with old age, such as worries about isolation, loneliness and the feeling of not being valued.

Grandparents can impart values to grandchildren and provide support to the grandchild’s family, including in times of crisis. That, too, can give older people a feeling of well-being. Grandparents can even be “socialized” by their grandchildren, helping them to feel up-to-date, culturally speaking.

For the grandchildren, a close relationship with a grandparent also can serve as a buffer, such as in times of divorce.

In one study, youngsters described their relationship with their grandparents as “low in conflict and high in affection.”

In so many words, that’s the “hope and love” new grandmother McCoy was talking about. Wubbenhorst, too, knows the positive effects of a close grandparenting relationship.

Her parents were gone before they could have a relationship with Wubbenhorst’s daughter Stephanie, but she says Stephanie had an “incredible” relationship with her husband’s parents.

Her mother-in-law cared for Stephanie during the workday prior to her going to preschool. Wubbenhorst hopes to help Stephanie and her husband in the same way when grandchildren come along.

“It was great that my mother-in-law didn’t do everything the way I would do it,” she says. “She told different stories, played different games — children benefit from different exposures. For my daughter, growing up with all that love just piled on top of the love we had for her.”

To reach Edward M. Eveld, call 816-234-4442 or send email to On Twitter @eeveld.

Not getting any younger

▪ In 1960, about 8 percent of women and 13 percent of men were married for the first time at 30 or older. Latest figures: about 30 percent for women and 40 percent for men.

▪ The marriage rate is projected to drop to an all-time low in 2016, 6.7 marriages per 1,000 people. The rate was 9.6 in 1867, 16.4 in 1946 and 10.8 in the 1980s.

▪ First births to women 35 and older is nearly 1 in 12 today, up from 1 in 100 in 1970.

▪ The percentage of women 40 to 44 who have never given birth has nearly doubled — to 18 percent — since 1970.

▪ The percentage of women 60 to 64 with no grandchildren is projected to hit 25 percent by 2020, up from 10 percent in the 1990s.

Sources: The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, Pew Research Center, Demographic Intelligence, University of Maryland, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

Grandchildren, finally

They may have had to wait, but hey, the older baby boomers might still get those grandchildren they’ve been wanting. Here are findings about Boomers in their later 60s.

▪ 82 percent rate their health as good to excellent.

▪ They will see themselves as “old” at the age of 78.5.

▪ 52 percent have fully retired.

▪ They have an average of 4.8 grandchildren.

▪ More than half feel their generation is leaving a positive legacy, with values and morals and a good work ethic as the top items cited.

Source: MetLife Mature Market Institute