Childlessness is one aspect of the diversity inherent in contemporary experience of marriage and the family. With this greater diversity, once-common pressures for childbearing have given way to greater social acceptance of remaining single or married without children. Nonetheless, childlessness is a concern, partly because of its implications for the maintenance of societies and partly because of its unwanted consequences for individuals. Rising levels of childlessness are contributing to falling birth rates and strengthening prospects of prolonged population decline in many industrialized countries. For some people, conditions of employment can make it difficult to combine having children with the pursuit of an income or a vocation. A long-term consequence, in later life, is that the childless have fewer resources for family interaction and support.
In industrialized countries, childlessness was more prevalent at the start of the twentieth century than at the end of the twentieth century. It was, however, less conspicuous because it occurred in conjunction with a large family system: That some had four or more children partly offset the childlessness of others, keeping birth rates relatively high. In the present situation, and one reason why the effects of childlessness are now more apparent, is that smaller families are more prevalent, with pronounced preferences for two children; relatively few couples have four or more. Childlessness can now make the difference between maintaining population numbers and precipitating long-term decline.
Statistics on trends in childlessness over time suggest three main features: high levels of childlessness for women born in the 1900s, declining levels for women born between about 1910 and 1949, followed by an increase among those born after 1950 (Figure 1). The changes reflect the impact of different social circumstances during their reproductive spans. Adding thirty to the birth year indicates the time when a female birth cohort, composed of women born in a given period, would have been in the midst of their potential childbearing years.
The peak figures for women born in the 1900s were related to the effects of the Great Depression on family formation, which led to delays in childbearing that some never made up, especially since World War II followed closely. Although figures varied among countries, 20 to 25 percent childless were typical peaks from which the subsequent decline in childlessness ensued.
The decline, among women born in the next four decades, reduced the prevalence of childlessness to between 10 and 15 percent, the lowest figures being for women born in the 1940s. The change was associated with economic and social conditions that fostered rises in the proportions marrying and having children, most notably in countries, such as the United States, that experienced protracted baby booms for fifteen or more years after World War II. Thus, the cohorts that became the parents of the baby boom generation had the lowest proportions of childless. The period of the decline in childlessness, like the boom in marriage and childbearing with which it was associated, was exceptional and relatively short-lived.
The childbearing years of the cohorts born between 1910 and 1949 largely preceded the changes that became particularly evident in the 1980s, toward greater social acceptance of family diversity, and weakening social expectations that individuals should marry and become parents (van de Kaa 1987; Lesthaeghe 1998). A return to higher levels of childlessness has been occurring among women born since the start of the 1950s. The trend is commonly associated with lower proportions marrying and with birth rates falling below replacement level, that is, below the level needed to maintain population numbers. Sharp increases in childlessness have been evident in the United States, England and Wales, Australia, Denmark, and Sweden. Some countries, such as France and Italy, have experienced a more delayed revival of childlessness (van de Kaa 1997; Toulemon 1996). Estimates of childlessness for cohorts still in the reproductive ages are necessarily tentative, but social researchers generally agree that the resurgence is an ongoing trend, with figures around 20 percent forecast for cohorts currently of reproductive age (Hakim 2001; Merlo and Rowland in press).
The lowest-known proportion childless among ever-married women is less than 3 percent for a Hutterite religious community in North America with virtually universal early marriage of women (Veevers 1972). Low figures occur where a population has high proportions married in their early twenties and does not use family planning or abortion to delay the first birth. Conversely, high proportions of childless are related to late marriage, low proportions marrying, and use of birth prevention.
The early peak in childlessness, for women born in the 1900s, was associated particularly with childless marriages, rather than a fall in the proportions marrying. The Great Depression and World War II had more impact on childbearing than on marriage, but couples who postponed having children until better times risked remaining permanently childless if they delayed too long. Staying childless within marriage did not depend on innovations in methods of family limitation, but on early and widespread use of methods already known. Gigi Santow (1995) considered that coitus interruptus was "instrumental" in the trend to lower birth rates in Western countries and that it was in common use in all European countries during the early decades of the twentieth century. Sexual abstinence and abortion were also important, and low coital frequency may have been as well (Santow 1995; Szreter 1995). The passing of the effects of economic depression and war later facilitated a decline in married childlessness to relatively low figures, especially among the cohorts that produced the baby boom after World War II.
Changes in the proportions of people who marry have also shaped trends in childlessness. A major twentieth century development was themarriage revolution—a trend toward earlier and more universal marriage in Western societies, associated with a weakening of economic constraints. For example, in France, 11 percent of women born in 1900 had never been married by their fiftieth birthdays, compared with 7 percent of women born in 1940 (Toulemon 1996). A similar fall, to somewhat lower minimum figures, occurred in the United States (Haines 1996). The marriage revolution reduced the proportions of single and childless people and contributed to social expectations, peaking in the 1950s and 1960s, that most people would marry and become parents.
The subsequent resurgence of childlessness occurred in the context of the end of the marriage revolution, bringing a decline in the proportions marrying and a rise in age at marriage. The increasing educational attainments of women reinforced the trend toward delayed marriage, as well as supporting roles and value systems that represent alternatives to motherhood. Later marriage decreases the time during which pregnancy can occur, brings better knowledge of contraception, and strengthens the likelihood of a commitment to a childless lifestyle (de Jong and Sell 1977). Later marriage also increases the likelihood of low fecundity and difficulties in achieving a viable pregnancy. The revival of childlessness was further associated with the availability of more efficient methods of family limitation, especially the contraceptive pill and wider recourse to safe methods of sterilization and abortion.
For cohorts born since the 1950s, the distinction between married and unmarried childlessness has become less clear because consensual unions have attained greater acceptance in many countries, where higher proportions of children have been born outside formal marriages. Some authors perceive a global transformation of the matrimonial system in which relationships are merely the expression of individual choices, without societal regulation or concern.
Social scientists, however, are still debating the relative importance of voluntary and involuntary factors in the upturn in levels of childlessness, although individual self-fulfillment and freedom of choice have been seen as important (Poston and Kramer 1983; Carmichael 1995; Lesthaeghe 1998). In the United States, Dudley Poston and Erin Gotard (1977, p. 212) attributed the early part of the rise in childlessness mainly to voluntary factors "linked to broader changes in the fabric of society regarding fertility control, contraceptive technology, female work preferences and patterns, and sexual and family norms." They saw as a key trend the equalization between the sexes of opportunities for nonfamilial roles. Other commentators, however, consider the workplace insufficiently supportive of women who would like to combine employment and motherhood: equality of opportunity in employment does not necessarily entail adequate support for childbearing and parenting. Others commenting on the rise of childlessness emphasize the long-term consequences of delaying family formation, given that many women do not wish to have a child until they are in their thirties, when the likelihood of fertility problems is greater.
Overall, there has probably always been a mixture of voluntary and involuntary factors in childlessness. It cannot be assumed that in the past marriage and family formation were universally desired, or that in the present, all are able to achieve their particular marital and reproductive goals. Nor is there an absolute distinction between voluntary and involuntary outcomes, especially since childlessness often results from delaying childbearing, rather than from a single decision never to have children (Poston and Trent 1982; Morgan 1991).
In West German opinion polls since 1953, less than 5 percent of women said that they did not want to have children (Schwarz 1986), but this is far fewer than the actual proportions remaining childless. Similar surveys in other European countries mostly found that only 2 to 5 percent of young women did not want any children (Coleman 1996). Respondents may wish to give the appearance of conforming to traditional family norms, but postponements strengthen preferences for a lifestyle without children.
Overall, the rising prevalence of childlessness is one aspect of the diversity of life-cycle experience among people of reproductive age. It arises from a combination of varied phenomena including: the decline of social pressures to marry and bear children, inability to find a partner, lack of interest in finding a partner, insufficient commitment in relationships, concern about the durability of relationships, concern about the prospects for children in insecure environments, financial problems and constraints, difficulties in combining parenting and employment, dislike of children, postponement of childbearing, declining fecundity at older ages of family formation, and pursuit of careers and material consumption.
Childlessness has varied consequences through its effects on societies and on the lifestyles and life chances of individuals. The childless lifestyle enhances life satisfaction for some individuals, while diminishing it for others, for whom parenthood was a personal goal. For societies, childlessness is a factor in low birth rates and population decline, with which are associated diminishing labor force entries and rising proportions in older ages. Childlessness is therefore a consideration for policy makers, both because of its demographic impact and because of its effects on the lives of individuals. The latter become most apparent in the older ages, where childlessness means that family resources for support of the disabled or frail are less assured.
Studies of the advantages and disadvantages of childlessness in later life suggest that well-being is not necessarily dependent on children, because the childless can meet their expressive (emotional) needs through greater contact with other relatives, friends, and neighbors, as well as with organizations such as clubs and churches. However, the childless in poor health appear to have a higher risk of social isolation or of admission to aged care institutions (Bachrach 1980; Rowland 1998). This implies that the support networks of the childless elderly are less effective in providing instrumental (practical) support, at least when the need is continuing. Although the majority of the elderly do not necessarily see family care as the best alternative (Rempel 1985), without the prospect of periodic help from children, or their assistance as a last resort, the childless must be more reliant on formal services or institutional care.
Thus, as cohorts with high proportions childless reach the older ages, family-centered approaches to aged care become less effective. In the late twentieth century, many of the aged in industrialized countries had few close relatives, which brought to the fore questions about their access to support. The decline of childlessness among later cohorts is now reducing the prevalence of such problems. However, by the 2020s, similar concerns about the adequacy of personal resources will confront the 1950s cohorts, as childlessness continues to shape their destiny. The proportions childless are unlikely to fall below 10 percent in any of the more developed countries for which data are available. Indeed, Catherine Hakim (2001, p. 51) forecasts "a stable plateau in most rich modern societies" of 20 percent childless.
Bachrach, C. A. (1980). "Childlessness and Social Isolation among the Elderly." Journal of Marriage and the Family 42:627–637.
Bloom, D. E., and Pebley, A. R. (1982). "Voluntary Childlessness: A Review of the Evidence and Implications." Population Research and Policy Review 1(3):203–224.
Carmichael, G. A. (1995). "Consensual Partnering in the More Developed Countries (review article)." Journal of the Australian Population Association 12(1):51–86.
Coleman, D., ed. (1996). Europe's Population in the1990s. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press.
De Jong, G. F., and Sell, R. R. (1977). "Changes in Childlessness in the United States: A Demographic Path Analysis." Population Studies 31(1):129–141.
Haines, M. R. (1996). "Long-term Marriage Patterns in the United States from Colonial Times to the Present." The History of the Family 1(1):15–39.
Lesthaeghe, R. (1998). "On Theory Development: Applications to the Study of Family Formation." Population and Development Review 24(1):1–14.
May, E. T. (1995). Barren in the Promised Land: ChildlessAmericans and the Pursuit of Happiness. New York: Basic Books.
Merlo, R, and Rowland, D. (2000). "The Prevalence of Childlessness in Australia." People and Places 8(2):21–32.
Morgan, S. P. (1991). "Late Nineteenth and Early Twentieth-Century Childlessness." American Journal of Sociology 97(3):779–807.
Poston, D. L., and Gotard, E. (1977). "Trends in Childlessness in the United States (1919–1975)." Social Biology 24(3):212–224.
Poston, D. L., and Kramer, K. B. (1983). "Voluntary and Involuntary Childlessness in the United States (1955–1973)." Social Biology 30(3):290–306.
Poston, D. L., and Trent, K. (1982). "International Variability in Childlessness: A Descriptive and Analytical Study." Journal of Family Issues 3(4):473–491.
Rempel, J. (1985). "Childless Elderly: What Are They Missing?" Journal of Marriage and the Family 47:343–348.
Rowland, D. T. (1998). "Consequences of Childlessness in Later Life." Australasian Journal on Ageing 17(1):24–28.
Rowland, D. T. (in press). "Historical Trends in Childlessness." In Aging Without Children: A Cross-National Handbook on Childlessness in Late Life, ed. P. A. Dykstra. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press.
Santow, G. (1995). "Coitus Interruptus and the Control of Natural Fertility." Population Studies 49(1):19–43.
Schwarz, K. (1986). "Childlessness in Germany: Past and Present." In Lifestyles, Contraception, and Parenthood: Proceedings of a Workshop, ed. H. Moors and J. Schoorl. The Hague: Netherlands Interdisciplinary Demographic Institute.
Szreter, S. (1996). Fertility, Class, and Gender in Britain,1860–1940. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.
Toulemon, L. (1996). "Very Few Couples Remain Voluntarily Childless." Population: An English Selection 8:1–28.
van de Kaa, D. J. (1987). "Europe's Second Demographic Transition." Population Bulletin 42(1):1–59.
Veevers, J. E. (1972). "Factors in the Incidence of Childlessness in Canada: An Analysis of Census Data." Social Biology 19:266–274.
d. t. rowland
Childlessness, according to the International Union for the Scientific Study of Populations (IUSSP) demographic dictionary, "refers to the state of a woman, man or couple who have been so far infertile." It should be distinguished from sterility or infecundity, terms which describe impairment of the capacity to conceive or the capacity to produce a live child. Childlessness can be measured for any person or couple in position to have (or to have had) a child, whatever the reason they did not do so. Definitive childlessness, measured at the end of reproductive life, will be treated here. As with other demographic phenomena, proportions childless can be measured in a population at a given time or for a particular cohort (set of individuals with a certain statistical characteristic in common). This entry will focus on the latter.
Causes of childlessness belong to two main categories:
- Involuntary childlessness–the consequence of sterility or infecundity, which may be congenital or caused by malnutrition or disease, especially sexually transmitted disease.
- Voluntary childlessness–the outcome of a deliberate choice, resulting from sexual abstinence, contraception, or abortion, or a consequence of social circumstances such as the absence of an available partner, or inability to provide for a family.
Involuntary childlessness is more frequent in less developed countries but is decreasing with their development; voluntary childlessness is the dominant form in most developed countries and is increasing.
Sources of Data and Measurement
Information on childlessness can be drawn from censuses and surveys or from vital registration. Most censuses and many specialized surveys have questions about the number of children ever born to women or couples, allowing calculation of the proportions childless for a cross-section of the population by various criteria, such as age or duration of marriage at the time of the census or survey. If they contain questions on the reproductive histories of women or couples, or if consecutive censuses are close enough, it is possible to study trends of childlessness by such criteria over time and for birth or marriage cohorts. These trends can also be observed from vital registration data on annual numbers of live births by birth order. In this case, the study of childlessness is the complement of the study of first birth order fertility. Both data sources have measurement problems. In censuses and surveys, the quality of responses, especially on retrospective questions, diminishes with age, especially for older respondents as a result of memory alteration and selection effects. With vital statistics, difficulties come from the multiplicity of definitions used to classify births according to birth order. Births may refer only to those within the current marriage or to all births of the mother. Birth order classification can refer to live births only or to all births (live births and stillbirths), in the latter case underestimating the level of childlessness; in the same manner, to define the order of a live birth, only live births or all births can be taken into account, the latter overestimating childlessness.
The most serious measurement difficulty comes from the definition of birth order used by some countries, especially some in Western Europe, such as France (until recently), Germany, or the United Kingdom: birth order among all the live births of the current marriage. This definition made sense when births outside marriage, and divorces and remarriages, were rare; the increase of births to unmarried women, the high proportion of marriages ended by divorce, and the frequency of remarriages, lead to a larger and larger gap between measurements based on each definition. The very high proportion of first births born out of wedlock, and the frequency of marriages entered into after the beginning of family formation, lead to overestimation of the rate of first births and consequently an underestimation of permanent childlessness. Another group of countries, including Bulgaria, Croatia, Slovenia, Yugoslavia, Portugal, and Romania, use the concept of biological birth order. In these countries, childlessness proportions based on annual data from civil registration and annual population estimates typically yield values well below 5 percent–the level which would be considered the absolute minimum for the incidence of sterility in a population. These very low estimates may reflect not only the questionable quality of data collected, but also the effect of selection through migration. The latter leads to overestimating the first-birth fertility rate if childless women leave the country or if nonresident women come to the country to give birth.
Trends and Levels
Differences in data availability between developed and developing countries mean that trends and levels of childlessness are much better known in lowfertility societies than under high-fertility conditions. In the developed countries childlessness, defined as the proportion of women who had had no live birth by the end of their reproductive life, was at a low level among cohorts experiencing the baby boom years of the 1950s and 1960s. For women born in the early 1940s childlessness was around 10 percent. It rose rapidly for successive later cohorts. The 1960s birth cohorts exceed 20 percent childlessness in a number of European countries, including England and Wales, Austria, Italy, Finland, and Ireland, and in the western part of Germany. This level, however, is still lower than that of cohorts born in the early twentieth century. In Central and Eastern Europe, childlessness has been at a much lower level (5–10 percent) until recent years when it has been converging to Western European patterns. This is indicated by the proportions childless in cohorts that are approaching the end of reproductive life. Thus, for example, the proportions were as high as 20 percent for the early 1970s cohorts in Poland and Slovakia. (The rise is much smaller in Russia.) At least some of the increase in childlessness is probably due to reduced marriage frequency not offset by a corresponding rise in the frequency of consensual unions and extra-marital births.
The United States experienced an upward trend in childlessness similar to Western Europe's and preceding it by about ten years. It reached 17 percent among women born in 1953, only to level off and even decrease slightly thereafter (15.5 percent among the 1965 cohort).
In some countries, especially those with substantial emigration, the level of childlessness, measured from vital statistics, may have been somewhat underestimated. This may be the case for Portugal, the former Yugoslavia, Bulgaria, and Romania.
The postponement of motherhood in all European countries increases the risk of childlessness because of decreasing fecundability after age 30. The rising infecundity caused by postponed motherhood cannot be fully compensated by medical techniques, as shown by surveys such as the 1998 Netherlands Fertility and Family Survey. The development of in vitro fertilization and similar medical procedures have allowed some women to have children that they would not have had otherwise, but many women who postponed childbearing will never have a birth even with the help of the new techniques.
Social Implications of Childlessness
High rates of childlessness in developed countries create the potential for social conflict. The state (and parents) on the one hand and the childless on the other have differing interests on matters such as the financing of social welfare, pensions, aged care institutions, and education. If children are consumer goods for their parents they are also investments in the future for society. The developed world might encounter a situation familiar in developing countries, where women are often blamed for childlessness regardless of the cause of their infertility. Alternatively, there is the possibility of further institutionalization of a childless lifestyle, entrenching high levels of childlessness.
Frinking, Gerald. 1988. "Childlessness in Europe: Trends and Implications." In Lifestyles, Contraception and Parenthood: Proceedings of a Workshop, eds. Hein Moors and Jeannette Schoorl. The Hague: Netherlands Interdisciplinary Demographic Institute.
Poston, Dudley L. 1982. "International Variability in Childlessness: A Descriptive and Analytical Study." Journal of Family Issues 3 (4): 473–491.
Poston, Dudley L., and Baochang Gu. 1983. "Measurement of Childlessness with World Fertility and National Census Data." In American Statistical Association, Proceeding of the Social Statistics Section 401–406.
Prioux, France. 1993. "L'infécondité en Europe." In European Population, Vol. 2: Demographic Dynamics, ed. Alain Blum and Jean-Louis Rallu. Paris: INED; John Libbey Eurotext.
Rowland, Donald T. 1998. "Cross-National Trends in Childlessness." Working paper in demography 73; Australian National University, Canberra.
Steehof, Liesbeth, and Andries De Jong. 2001. "Infecundity: A Result of Postponed Childbearing." European Population Conference 2001, June 7–9. Theme A, Session A3, Helsinki.
The term childlessness refers to a lifetime of being childless and can be applied both to couples that have never borne a child and to single women or men. Most research, and hence most available data, focuses on women. In some populations the proportion of women experiencing childlessness has been as low as 2 or 3 percent, and in others it has been ten times this minimum level. In the twentieth-century United States, for instance, the level of childlessness for women born in the first decade of the century (and bearing children during the depression of the 1930s) and for those born in the 1950s (and bearing children during the century’s last three decades) was approximately 20 percent. By contrast, it was approximately 10 percent for U.S. women born in the 1930s (and bearing children during the baby boom of the 1950s).
There are four dominant paths to childlessness. First, persons can decide at a young age that they want no children and maintain this position over their lifetimes. Second, persons can intend to have children but postpone childbearing to an age when they are unable to have children, because of subfecundity or infecundity (i.e., limited ability or inability, for biological reasons, to conceive and carry a birth to term). Third, persons who desire and expect children but who are willing to have them only if they are married or in a stable union may become childless as a result of failing to establish such unions. Finally, persons can be unable to bear children due to infecundity present from a young age. The prevalence of each of these reasons for childlessness varies across time and place. In the United States and Europe in the early twenty-first century, the second and third reasons are most prevalent.
There have been many attempts to distinguish voluntary from involuntary childlessness, but this distinction is problematic. Voluntariness is ascribed to those who deliberately choose childlessness and involuntariness to those who are infecund due to congenital abnormalities, malnutrition, or disease. Note that only the first and fourth pathways described above neatly conform to this distinction. The second pathway (postponement followed by infecundity) combines a period of voluntary childlessness with an involuntary period. The third pathway (childlessness due to non-marriage) is in some sense involuntary but is due to a social constraint (the pressure to establish an appropriate union) rather than something biological.
Subfecundity and infecundity, both major contributors to childlessness, have two sources. First, reduced fecundity can occur at any age due to a large number of diseases. For instance, many sexually transmitted infections can lead to pelvic inflammatory disease that results in scarring of the fallopian tubes, thus inhibiting the release of ovum in females. This particular problem may be solved by assisted reproductive technology (ART), which encompasses techniques such as in vitro fertilization. In the United States in 2005, 1 percent of all births resulted from in vitro fertilization. The second cause of infertility is senescence-related (i.e., due to aging). From the time women are in their mid- to late twenties, fecundity declines at an increasing rate with increasing age. ART can overcome some of these senescence-related problems, but technologies still cannot overcome many of them.
Childless adults face a stigma, although its degree varies by time and place. Stigma is greatest in contexts where there are few or no life-course alternatives to marriage and parenthood. In these contexts being unmarried or childless places one outside acceptable adult statuses. The consequences for women are often more severe than for men. Childlessness can lead the husband to take another wife or can provide justification for divorce or abandonment of the wife. In the late twentieth century many societies experienced feminist social movements and assertions that parenthood and childlessness are equally legitimate lifestyle choices.
While childbirth is the dominant pathway to parenthood, the permanently childless may become parents through adoption. Like childless adults, adopted children face a stigma that varies across time and place.
SEE ALSO Family; Feminism; Fertility, Human; Infertility Drugs, Psychosocial Issues; Stigma
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S. Philip Morgan