Background: Recent research on fertility in industrialized countries focuses primarily on delayed childbearing, despite the facts that large numbers of women continue to enter parenthood at relatively young ages and that early childbearing has been linked to economic disadvantage. Objective: This cross-national comparative study describes relationships between women's educational attainment and young age at first birth and evaluates the extent to which these differences have changed over time for women born 1955-1981. Methods: Defining 'early' childbearing as the age by which 20% of first births have occurred to women in a given birth cohort and country, we describe differences in early childbearing by educational attainment across three cohorts of women in 20 countries. Results: We find a strong negative educational gradient in early childbearing across all 20 countries and some evidence of an increase in the relative prevalence of early childbearing among the least-educated women. In 10 countries, the relative prevalence of early childbearing among women with low education is significantly higher for one or both of the more recent birth cohorts compared to the earliest cohort. However, many countries show no significant change, and in one country (Poland) there is modest evidence of a decreasing educational gap. Conclusions: Evidence that educational differences in early childbearing have grown in some countries is generally consistent with the notion of family bifurcation and 'diverging destinies' by socioeconomic status. However, the pattern is not universal and future work should examine the various factors that shape these patterns, including the role of public policies.
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