The ideal age to become parents in Europe: the role of gender, education, and religion

By Sara Illari

Final assignment for the “Data Analysis” course, Public and Corporate Communication Master’s program, 2021-2022, University of Milano. Instructor: Giulia Dotti Sani

Introduction and background

Previous research shows how the ideal age to become parents in Europe is perceived in a significantly different way for women and men, especially concerning social deadlines more than biological ones. The idea is that there is stronger and earlier social pressure for women to become mothers than for men to become fathers (Billari et al. 2011). However, biological deadlines are important too: people believe there is an optimal age for childbearing, which carries the lowest health risk both for mother and child, and this idea is particularly relevant for religious people (Paksi and Szalma 2009).

In addition to this, cultural factors play an important role in defining the ideal moment for these stages of life, varying significantly between the different areas and countries of Europe (Billari 2004). Despite social and biological rules, the changes of the last decades have caused a profound variation in family life and the meaning of family, making delayed childbearing more socially acceptable (Benzies et al. 2006, Sobotka and Toulemon 2008). Facts considered particularly responsible for this trend are mainly related to more reliable contraception, better prenatal care, women’s movements, and higher education and wage level, all elements that deeply affected the ideal age to become parents in Europe (Paksi and Szalma 2009).

In this brief analysis, I use European Social Survey data to investigate what is the ideal age to become a parent in four European countries: Germany, Italy, Bulgaria, and Estonia. Based on previous studies, I test the following hypotheses:

  • H1: The ideal age to become a mother is lower than the ideal age to become a father
  • H2: The ideal age to become a mother or father is lower in eastern European countries than in continental and southern ones
  • H3: The ideal age to become a mother or a father is lower for religious people than for non-religious ones
  • H4: The ideal age to become a mother or a father is lower among subjects with lower levels of education compared to those with higher levels of education


Data and method

For the analysis I used the ninth round of the European Social Survey collected in 2018. The variable I decided to analyze is the ideal age to become a mother or a father. The variable adopts a split ballot design in which a random half of the respondents had to answer the question for women (i.e., the ideal age to become mothers) and another random half for men (i.e., the ideal age to become fathers). The original variable has been recoded by dropping subjects who answered 0 “No ideal age” (about 10% of the sample) and by top coding respondents who gave answers greater than 55. As a result, the variable used in the analyses ranges from 15 to 55. I restrict the analyses to four European countries, namely Germany, Italy, Bulgaria, and Estonia, which I chose because of their different level of economic development based on GDP. Beyond country, the other relevant variables used in the analyses are religiosity and level of education. Religiosity, originally measured on a scale from 0 (not at all religious) to 10 (very religious) has been recoded as “low” (values ≤ 3), “medium” (values 4, 5, 6) and “high” (≥7). The level of education is also coded as “low” (ISCED 0, 1, and 2), “medium” (ISCED 3 and 4) and “high” (ISCED 5 and 6). The overall sample consists of 7,451 respondents between 15 and 90 years old.


Starting from our first hypothesis, the results indicate that there is a difference in the ideal age to become a mother and a father in Europe and that the ideal age to become a mother is lower than that of becoming a father (26.40 vs 28.70, diff=-2.299, p<0.001). Figure 1 shows that this is the case in all four countries analyzed. The graph also shows that, as expected, the ideal age to become a mother or father is lower in eastern European countries than in the continental and southern one. Within each country, the differences between the responses for women vs. men are significant at the 0.001 level.

Regression models are used to test the hypotheses referred to religion and education. The results are presented below in Figure 2, which shows the ideal age of becoming a parent in the four countries conditioning on the degree of religiosity (left) and level of education (right). Starting from the panel on the left, we may notice that higher levels of religiosity are associated with a lower ideal age for becoming a parent, as hypothesized, but only in Italy and Hungary, while the slopes are substantially flat in Germany and Estonia. Thus, it appears that country characteristics play an important role not only in shaping ideas about the timing of childbearing but also in the relationship with other critical variables. In particular, the fact that Italy and Hungary have a large Catholic population might account for some of the differences observed.

Moving to the panel on the right, we observe that our last hypothesis is supported: in all four countries considered, subjects with higher levels of education think that parenthood should occur at higher ages compared to low educated parents, reflecting well know findings in the literature related to opportunity costs of parenthood and educational choices. Interestingly, the positive effect of education is present in all four countries, suggesting that the cultural and economic context does little to moderate this association, unlike what occurred in the case of religiosity.

Figure 2. Predicted ideal age to become a parent by country and degree of religiosity (left) and level of education (right).


This brief analysis attempted to explore some of the factors that may influence the ideal age to become a mother or father in Europe. Among the factors considered it can be seen that there is a difference in the ideal age for women and men and that this difference counts for a younger age for the first. Age differences are perceived in all the European countries considered, although different social, cultural and economic factors might account for differences in what is considered to be the ideal age to become a parent. Finally, we analyzed if religion and education could affect the ideal age to become a parent and we found some support for our hypotheses, seeing how ideal ages are lower for religious than non-religious people (at least in Italy and Hungary, two countries with a large Catholic population) and that as the level of education rises so does the ideal age both for women and men to become parents. To conclude, these results show only some of the factors that influence the ideal age to become parents in Europe, but the research could be further developed by considering other societal or cultural factors that in any European and extra-European country may affect people’s ideas about reproductive behavior.


Benzies, K., Tough, S., Tofflemire, K., Frick, C., Faber, A., Newburn-Cook, C., 2006. Factors influencing women’s decisions about timing of motherhood, J Obstetric Gynecologic Neonatal Nursing, 35, 625-633.

Billari, F., 2004. Becoming an Adult in Europe: A Macro(/Micro)-Demographic Perspective, Demographic Research, Special collection 3, Article 2, 15-44.

Billari, F., 2011. Social age deadlines for the childbearing of women and men, Human Reproduction, Volume 26, Issue 3, 616–622.

Paksi, V., Szalma, I., 2009. Age norms of childbearing- early, ideal and late childbearing in European countries-, Review of Sociology, Volume 15, Article 2, 57–80.

Sobotka, T., Laurent, T., 2008. Changing family and partnership behaviour: Common trends and persistent diversity across Europe, Demographic Research, Volume 19, Article 6, 85-138.

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