In April 2024, we revisited the ages at which people in the UK experience important life events using our latest available data in Milestones: journeying through modern life

In February 2019, our article Milestones: journeying into adulthood showed that many of the significant life events that young people experience – including starting work, moving out of their parents’ home, having children and getting married – are happening at older ages than they used to, and sometimes in a different order.

People’s later-life milestones appear to be shifting too. The most recent available data about our personal and working lives show that many of the significant moments are happening later than they used to.

Age 31: Giving birth to a second (and last?) child

At first glance this age might seem fairly young. After all, as media coverage of celebrity mums suggests, more women are having children at older ages.

In England and Wales, fertility rates for women aged 40 and over have almost doubled since 1999, and rates for women aged 35 to 39 are up by more than 50%. But despite this large increase, mothers in these age groups still only account for less than a quarter (23%) of births in England and Wales in 2018.

As we showed in our previous Milestones article, the average age of first-time mums is 29. The typical gap between first and second children has shrunk over the last two decades and is now just over two years:

As average age of mothers rises, the gap between first and second children is shrinking

Standardised mean age of mother by birth order, England and Wales, 1999 to 2018

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  1. The mean age of mother at childbirth is standardised. This measure eliminates the impact of any changes in the distribution of the population by age and therefore enables trends over time to be analysed.

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It is likely that a second child will be many women’s last. The average number of children per woman has been falling for decades, with women in England and Wales who turned 45 in 2018 having had an average of 1.89 children – the joint-lowest number since records began.

Only a quarter (26%) of these women had given birth to three or more children, compared with 30% of women born around twenty years earlier. The number of women having no children, and those having only one child, has increased over this time, bringing the average number of children per woman down. Younger generations appear to be continuing this trend.

Women are having fewer children than earlier generations

Estimated family size for women who are assumed to have completed their childbearing, by women's year of birth, England and Wales, 2018

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We can’t measure the number of children men have in their lifetimes in the same way, since when births are registered, fathers are not asked whether they have any children already. Both men and women are thought to be delaying having children, and possibly having fewer children as a result, for several reasons, including:

  • more women remaining in full-time education
  • couples forming later
  • wanting to start a career, set up home with a partner and become more financially stable before having children

    Age 41: Highest earnings for employees

    Earnings across the age range have followed a broadly consistent pattern for decades: young people have earned the least and those between 30 and 50 have earned the most, with earnings steadily falling towards the typical age of retirement.

    This doesn’t mean that individual workers’ pay necessarily goes down as they get older – it could be because higher-paid workers may be able to retire early, with the remaining older workers tending to work in lower-paid jobs. For example, part-time jobs pay less than full-time ones – even on an hourly basis.

    The chart below shows the average earnings by age in 1999, 2009 and 2019. It does not show how earnings change for individuals through their careers. When making comparisons between time periods, it is worth noting that the employees in each age group will also change as people become or stop being employees, perhaps because of self-employment.

    Age of highest earnings for employees has fluctuated in recent decades

    Median hourly earnings by single year of age, adjusted for inflation, UK, 1999, 2009 and 2019

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    Within this general trend, the specific age of the average highest-earning employees has fluctuated. In 1999, people in their mid-30s and 40s earned the most, with 47-year-olds earning the equivalent of £12.25 per hour, after taking inflation into account.

    In 2019, it is 41-year-old employees who received the highest average hourly earnings, at £14.83 per hour. There is some evidence that people’s earnings are influenced by the year in which they join the workforce. These employees are likely to have started work before the 2008 financial crisis, unlike younger workers whose pay may not have risen as fast as previous generations because of the impact of the recession.

    As the workforce has become more gender-balanced, the ages of highest earnings for men and women have converged. In 1999, the ages of highest earnings were almost 20 years apart: women’s earnings were highest at 29 years, and men’s at 48 years.

    Our most recent data show the ages of highest earnings for men and women three years apart: women’s earnings are highest at 41 years, and men earn the most at 44 years.

    Ages of highest earnings for men and women in employment are converging

    Median hourly earnings by single year of age and sex, adjusted for inflation, UK, 1999 and 2019

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    One factor in this shift could be the greater number of women in the workforce. Women entering the job market are more likely to be highly qualified than men, with women outnumbering men on university courses since the mid-1990s.

    The gender pay gap (the difference between women’s and men’s gross hourly earnings) is clear throughout most of the age range, especially beyond the typical age that women have children, although the overall gap has reduced from 26.9% to 17.3% between 1999 and 2019.

    Women are more likely than men to work in part-time jobs, which are usually not as well paid as full-time roles. Among full-time workers under 40, the gender pay gap is close to zero.

    Nevertheless, women’s and men’s highest earnings are still markedly different: in 2019, women’s highest earnings were £13.68 per hour (for those aged 41) while men’s earnings reached £16.40 per hour (for 44-year-olds).

    Age 45: Getting divorced

    Only a minority of us are likely to experience this milestone – partly because only some people are married to begin with. 66% of men and 72% of women in England and Wales who turned 45 in 2017 had ever been married.

    The average age of divorce is of course heavily influenced by how old people are when they get married. As we showed in the last Milestones article, the average age of marriage is continuing to rise.

    In 2018, the average (mean) age at divorce for opposite-sex couples in England and Wales was 46.9 years for men and 44.5 years for women. This is more than six years higher than it was for both sexes twenty years ago.

    Average age of people getting divorced continues to rise

    Mean age at divorce, by sex, England and Wales, 1998 to 2018

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    1. Marriages of same-sex couples first took place on 29 March 2014 in England and Wales. The first divorces recorded between same-sex couples were in 2015.

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    There is some evidence that people who get married later in life have a lower risk of divorce (PDF, 245kB); this may help to explain why the divorce rate has been coming down at the same time as average marital age has been rising.

    Not only are people getting married later – they are also staying married for longer. In 2018, the median duration of marriage before divorce for opposite-sex couples in England and Wales was 12.5 years, the longest duration since records began in 1963.

    A combination of all these factors is likely to be driving the continuing rise in the average age of people getting a divorce.

    How many marriages have ended in divorce?

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    1. Cumulative percentages add a percentage from one period to the percentage of another period to show the total percentage over a given time period.
    2. The Divorce Reform Act 1969, which came into effect on 1 January 1971, made it easier for couples to divorce upon separation.

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    As the average age of divorce has increased, so has the average age of remarriage for divorcees. In 2016, the mean age of remarriage for divorced men and women in the UK was 50.4 and 47.4 years respectively for opposite-sex remarriages – eight years older than it was in 1998.

    For same-sex remarriages for divorced men and women, the average (mean) ages in England and Wales in 2016 were 50.5 years and 45.8 years respectively.

    When comparing milestones such as average ages of marriage and divorce, it is important to bear in mind that these are the latest data, but people getting married this year may not have the same average marriage duration or average age at divorce (should that happen). Likewise, people getting divorced today got married at a time when there was a different average age of marriage.

    Age 57: Providing care

    With life expectancy in the UK continuing to rise – albeit more slowly than before – it is increasingly likely that people in their 50s, 60s and 70s will have parents or other older relatives alive who might need care.

    According to the 2011 Census, around 12% of the UK population provide informal (unpaid) care to family members, friends, neighbours or others because of long-term illness, disability, or problems related to old age.

    The proportion of people providing care peaks at the age of 56 for women and 59 for men, at which point around one in four women (25%) and more than one in six men (18%) are informal carers.

    More women than men are carers, until the age of 74

    Proportion of people providing care, by sex and single year of age, UK, 2011

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    1. The 2011 Census forms in England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland asked whether respondents provided unpaid care to family members, friends, neighbours or others because of long-term physical or mental ill health or disability, or problems related to old age and for how many hours per week. It is not possible to differentiate further than an individual’s response; for this reason it cannot be guaranteed that people haven’t included general child care arrangements in their response.

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    The number of people who are providing care is continuing to rise: between the financial years ending 2008 and 2018, higher proportions of men aged 60 to 64 and women aged 55 to 59 years were providing informal care.

    Informal carers are most likely to be caring for a parent: 40% of female carers and 38% of male carers are helping their mother or father (or both).

    Men are more likely than women to be caring for their spouse or partner – among informal carers, around one in four men compared with around one in six women – but women are more likely to be providing care to people living in a different household.

    Men are more likely than women to be caring for their partner

    Percentage of informal carers by sex and person cared for, UK, financial year ending 2018

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    1. These percentages have been summed from the whole number percentages in Table 5.7 of the underlying tables (.xlsx, 130kB) behind the Family Resources Survey Report 2017/18 which was published by the Department for Work and Pensions in March 2019. Constituent parts may not sum due to rounding.

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    Overall, women take on a greater share of informal care than men. This may be due to traditional perceptions of gender roles in society, or the gender pay gap making it more financially advantageous for men to remain working while women provide care. It could be that as women are more likely than men to work part-time, they are available to provide care – or alternatively, they might be working part-time because of their caring responsibilities.

    From the age of 74 onwards, the proportion of men providing unpaid care is greater than for women. This may be because women in this age group are more likely than men to be widowed, so they no longer have a spouse to care for, and by this age, their parents are likely to have died.

    By contrast, men in this age group are likely to be caring for their (typically younger) spouse or partner. In addition, healthy life expectancy (how long people live in good health) has continued to increase for men, while slightly decreasing for women. Married or cohabiting men may be looking after their spouses and partners for longer periods of time than before.

    Age 63: Becoming a grandparent

    Some might say that becoming a grandparent is one of life's happiest milestones. The average age of parenthood has been rising for a long time and the knock-on effect on the average age of grandparents is becoming clear: in 2017 to 2018, the age at which 50% of people had a grandchild living outside their household was 63 – three years later than 2009 to 2010.

    People are becoming grandparents at older ages than before

    Percentage of people who have a grandchild living outside of the household by age, UK, 2009 to 2010 and 2017 to 2018

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    1. Results are based on results from the following question: "Excluding relatives who are living in the household with you at the moment, can you tell me which of these types of relatives you have alive at the moment?". Therefore, the analysis excludes people who are living in the same household as their grandchild(ren).

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    Many grandparents of all ages are involved in looking after their grandchildren. In England in 2018, more than one in five families (22%) with children aged 14 and under had a grandparent involved in providing childcare (.ods, 72kB) to an estimated 1.6 million children. Since 2011, grandparents have been able to claim National Insurance credits for caring for a child under 12.

    Age 64: Stopping work

    People are working until later in life than they used to. Between 1999 and 2019, the average age of someone leaving the labour market increased from 61.7 years to 64.7 years, although there are differences in the ages of retirement between men and women.

    Men generally stop working later than women, but the gap has narrowed considerably in the last 20 years. In 1999, there were two-and-a-half years between the average ages of men and women stopping work (63.2 and 60.8 years respectively). By 2019, this had closed to a single year (65.3 and 64.3 years).

    Although women are staying in the workforce for longer than before, they remain far more likely than men to work reduced hours. At age 60, women in paid work are more likely to be part-time as opposed to full-time. For men, this doesn’t happen until age 66, when most of them have left the labour market completely.

    The ages at which men and women stop work are converging

    Average age of exit from the labour market by sex, UK, 1999 to 2019

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    The convergence between the ages of men and women stopping work could be down to changes to the State Pension age, which equalised at 65 for both sexes in November 2018.

    The State Pension age is set to rise further, with working lives extending in response to the UK’s ageing population. Under current legislation, it will reach 68 for both men and women by 2046.

    The age at which women are most likely to leave the labour market has risen in line with State Pension age

    Proportion leaving the labour market by sex and age, UK, April to June 2012 to April to June 2018

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    Ages 65 to 74: Peak happiness

    Beyond the age at which most people have stopped working, people report some of the highest levels of happiness. Men and women in their early 60s report increasing happiness levels. Between the ages of 65 and 74, both sexes are happier than those in any other age group.

    Happiness levels rise from 60 to 65

    Mean scores for happiness by sex and single year of age, UK, January 2016 to December 2018

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    1. Results are based on the following question: "How happy did you feel yesterday? Where 0 is 'not at all happy' and 10 is 'completely happy."

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    When looking at five-year age groups, women in their 30s (aged 30 to 34 and 35 to 39) are significantly happier than men. For both sexes, happiness is lowest when they are in their late 40s and early 50s.

    We have only been measuring personal well-being since 2011, so it is not yet possible to tell whether similarly high levels of happiness are likely to be experienced by people reaching this age in future, or whether the effect is confined to those currently in that age group. While the over-65s are a diverse group, the current generation report more positively on many measures of personal, social and financial well-being than their younger counterparts.

    Future milestones

    In the future, the milestones we have covered in this article and the previous Milestones report may become more, or less, important. New milestones may gain significance.

    These articles have captured only selected snapshots that are common to large numbers of people, if not the whole population. For many of us, these will be supplemented or replaced by more personal milestones that we consider to be the life’s most significant events.

    We would like to thank the Centre for Population Change for their input into the topic areas that we explored when researching this article.

  • View all data used in this article


    • Milestones: journeying into adulthood

      We used to think of getting married and having children as some of life's most important milestones. How are some of the modern markers of adulthood – from working life to living arrangements – changing?

    • Being 18 in 2018

      Work, family, marriage – how has life changed for the children of 2000 reaching adulthood?


    Centre for Ageing and Demography