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In recent years teenage motherhood has been officially regarded as a social ill, being associated with low social status and economic dependence; these are seen as both a precursor to teenage motherhood and an outcome of it. The newly-elected 1997 government announced an action plan to reduce levels of teenage parenthood. In 1999 the government's Social Exclusion Unit summarised the official view and recommended a number of specific initiatives towards this aim (Social Exclusion Unit, 1999, Teenage Pregnancy, The Stationery Office, London).

Early motherhood has not always been regarded as abnormal or undesirable. In 1971, 10.5% of all births were to teenage women, three-quarters of whom were married, and the average age of a woman bearing her first child was 24. By 2004 the percentage of births to teenage mothers was 7%, but 90% of these mothers were unmarried, and the average age at first motherhood had climbed steadily to 30. Teenage motherhood had changed from a normal phenomenon to being out of the ordinary. But even its detractors concede that it is not in itself a social ill, and that some teenage pregnancies are planned and well supported; research is needed with sufficiently large numbers of teenage mothers to illustrate the diversity of its associated characteristics.

Much of the existing research is based on cross-sectional data with retrospective histories. Using the General Household Survey, for example, it would be possible to use the respondent's reported fertility history to examine the work and family circumstances in mid-life of women who have been teenage mothers. But the sample numbers would be small. Some researchers have exploited British longitudinal data such as the 1946 and 1958 birth cohort studies (e.g. Botting et al 1998) but longitudinal data for more recent cohorts of teenage mothers is at present very limited. The ONS Longitudinal Study (LS), however, offers a continuous range of birth cohorts and constantly-developing follow-up period; since births to sample members are identified as they take place, the mother's circumstances can be studied both before and after the birth and sample numbers are much greater than those available in any other British survey.

To illustrate the possibilities offered by the LS, we have selected female LS members who were aged 5-9 years in 1981 and identified births to them over the next 20 years. This analysis uses linked data from the 1981 Census, the 2001 Census and Birth Registrations. (Some of these findings have been published in Buxton et al 2005.) There are three tables: Table 1 shows the results by the social class of their parents in 1981, in order to examine differences in propensity to become a teenage mother. If the LS member lives with two parents in different social classes, the higher of the two social classes is assigned; if the LS member lives with only one parent, only this parent's class is used. Table 2 shows the woman's economic activity in 2001 when she was aged 25-29 years, and Table 3 gives her highest qualification; both these may be regarded as indicators of a woman's long-term economic wellbeing, and by extension, of her likely health and social status.