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Childless by Choice

Around the globe, more women and men are delaying childbirth, with many deciding against having children altogether. Economic recession, high unemployment rates, education and career ambitions contribute to the phenomenon. Among most developed nations, one in 10 women in their late 40s have no children, and in Italy and Switzerland, the childlessness rate approaches one in four women. The demographic trend spells trouble for democracies with big entitlement programs for the elderly: Aging electorates could offer less support for education and community programs for children, as a shrinking population of younger adults struggle to pay for elders’ health care. To encourage childbirth, governments try cash awards and tax credits and even punitive policies of taxes on childless adults or restricting contraception, careers and education options for women. Of course, unwanted children are another challenge for governments. Among the more successful governments at balancing careers for women and tangible protections for families is France, with maternity/paternity leave, child care, after-school programs and cash allowances. – YaleGlobal

Childless by Choice

More people decide against having children, presenting quandaries for governments and the elderly
Joseph Chamie, Barry Mirkin
YaleGlobal, 2 March 2012
All the single ladies: With a poor economy and rising education levels among women, childlessness is no longer rare; in Italy (above), about one out of four women in their late 40s have no children; in India, it's about one out of 30

NEW YORK: While considerable media attention has focused on the world’s population reaching the milestone of 7 billion, another demographic phenomenon receives little notice: the rise in number of people who choose not to have children. Against a birthrate of less than two children per woman in nearly all Western countries and a growing number of developing countries – a rate that assures a decline in population – rising voluntary childlessness will have consequences for government programs for the aged, undesirable implications for the elderly and other repercussions, including smaller cohorts of children, increased population aging and demographic imbalances among educational groups.

When early marriage is close to universal and birth control is practiced little, less than 3 percent of women remain childless by the time they reach their late 40s. Until the early 1960s and the introduction of reliable family planning methods – namely, the oral contraceptive pill – childlessness within marriage was almost entirely involuntary.

The modern era provided more education opportunities for women, leading to later marriage, careers, lower proportions marrying, greater use of contraception and abortion, and changes in women’s role and status. As a result, the proportions of childless women in developed countries and many developing countries are well above 3 percent.

Increasing numbers of women attend schools and universities, pursuing employment, career development and self-enrichment. Consequently, women start childbearing later in life than they did in the past. Among OECD countries, for example, between 1970 and 2008 the average age at which women had their first child increased from 24 to 28 years. In Germany, Italy and Switzerland, the average age of first childbirth of women is higher, approaching 30 years. As a result of delayed childbearing, older women may find it difficult to become pregnant.

Childlessness rates are strongly connected to women’s educational levels.

Childlessness rates are strongly connected to women’s educational levels. Women with university education, for example, are more likely to be childless than those with secondary education. In addition, young women who are highly educated are more likely to choose employment and postpone family building. Another contributing factor to higher rates of childlessness among highly educated women is their reluctance to marry a less educated man.

By and large, women, especially those highly educated and seeking gender equality, have more to lose in terms of employment, careers and related opportunity costs than men when they become parents.

In most of the less developed countries the percentage of childless women in their late 40s is typically under 10 percent. And in some populous nations, such India, Indonesia, Pakistan, South Africa and Turkey, the proportion of women remaining childless by their late 40s is below 5 percent. In contrast, in the majority of developed countries childlessness among women at the end of their reproductive careers is above 10 percent. In some countries, such as England, Germany, the Netherlands and the United States, the proportions are substantial, with approximately one in five women in their late 40s remaining childless. Higher proportions are observed in Italy and Switzerland, where one in four women in their late 40s is childless. (See graph)

In Australia, Germany, Italy and the US, the proportion of childlessness among women in their late 40s has doubled over the past three decades.

Percentage of Childless Women in Their Late 40s, Selected Countries. Data from World Fertility Report 2009, UN Population Division, and OECD Family Database, 2011, Paris. Enlarge Image

Government policies can influence the childbearing rate. Maternity and paternity leave, childcare, part-time employment, job security, cash allowances, tax credits and other financial incentives are among the measures to encourage childbearing. Punitive polices are also tried like prohibiting abortion or contraception and restricting girls’ education and women’s employment.

Providing tangible support to couples is an especially critical factor influencing childbearing decisions. For example, in France, where the childlessness rate is around 10 percent, government policies and programs, including maternity/paternity leave, nurseries, afterschool programs and child allowances, facilitate family building and women’s participation in the workforce.

With a childless level similar to France, but a lower birth rate, Russia is considering pronatalist policies, such as financial support to families with three or more children and free land plots, raising student scholarships and reducing real estate costs. More desperate measures to encourage childbearing are also proposed, including reinstating a childless tax that existed in the Soviet Union between 1941 and 1992, whereby childless men aged 25 to 50 and women aged 20 to 45 paid an extra 6 percent of their monthly salaries to the government. Other low-fertility countries, such as the Ukraine and Germany, also debate a special tax on men and women who remain childless by choice.

Childlessness is often not a clear lifestyle choice – that is, women deliberately pursuing individual satisfaction and rejecting childrearing responsibilities. Most remain childless after a series of childbearing postponements, including higher education, employment, absence of a suitable partner, separation or divorce. In the US, young single, childless women now earn more than male counterparts, attributable to the higher education attainment, and this may account for women’s difficulties in finding a suitable partner. 

Men and women, especially in more developed countries, are also becoming more realistic about their expectations of family building, recognizing that many marriages end in separation and divorce. The cultural pressures to marry and have children are considerably less than they were in the past, while remaining childless is increasingly viewed as a viable lifestyle option.

Childless older adults can have higher medical costs and more complex health-care needs than older couples with children.

Historically, childlessness was a rare occurrence and had limited demographic consequences at a time when most families were large. Today, with smaller families, the demographic impact of childlessness is more consequential. 

In the US, for example, the percentage of women in their 40s with three or more children fell from 59 percent in 1976 to 29 percent in 2010. In Italy, a nation with a tradition of large families, the percentage of women in their 40s with four or more children dropped from around 17 percent in the early 1980s to less than 5 today.

Voluntary childlessness contributes to keeping fertility below the replacement level – on average about two children per woman – which reduces the size of the future labor force, boosts the proportions of elderly and thereby increases old-age dependency ratios. In turn, this can lead to more program support for the elderly, less support for education funding and other community programs for children. These demographic changes have far-reaching implications, especially with regard to the domestic labor force, immigration levels, voting patterns, taxation, pension expenditures, education funding and health-care costs.

Recent evidence suggests that aged childless couples, especially women, are likely to be disproportionately affected. In Italy, studies have found that older non-parents lacked the health care and social support that adult children and professional caregivers could provide. Similarly, in the US, based on the experiences of several states, childless older adults were likely to have higher medical costs and more complex health-care needs than older couples with children. 

The population of childless aged couples, especially women, is expected to grow rapidly. In Italy and the US, for example, the population of childless women aged 65 or older is expected to nearly quadruple over the next four decades. These projections raise questions about the provision of care for childless women and men upon reaching advanced ages.

With the decline in large families and upswing in childlessness, the low fertility rates in many developed countries are unlikely to rebound to replacement levels anytime soon, especially given relatively high levels of youth unemployment, the continuing economic recession and gloomy prospects for a rapid, painless recovery.

The current severe budget deficits facing many developed countries and acrimonious negotiations on the future of the welfare state will likely result in reduced government entitlements, especially for older persons. A vivid example was the recent axing of the newly approved US long-term insurance program even before it was implemented.

Given the anticipated substantial cutbacks in entitlements –already underway in European nations – it’s doubtful that governments can provide sufficient financial and human resources to care for the growing numbers of elderly without children.


Joseph Chamie is the former director of the United Nations Population Division and Barry Mirkin is an independent consultant.

Rights:Copyright © 2012 Yale Center for the Study of Globalization

Comments on this Article

19 March 2012
I am stunned by the number of comments that take the tack that there is a selfishness in not having children. This is especially surprising at a time when we are literally killing the planet with the complications of technology and over population.
Why aren't we hearing arguments for changing our definitions of a successful society? Why are we measuring economies on growth? Aren't there other approaches to take? It is not the "fault" of women to chose to have fewer children. It might actually be a good thing in light of the limited resources on the planet. I'd also like to see us move from defining "family" as only those with direct kinship patterns to those who chose to make a family for themselves - including other adults and not necessarily only in a sexual realationship. When we talk about families, it is always in an idealized "Norman Rockwell-esque" way. Ask any social worker and you will see a very different assessment of the impacts of "family" - and often in a destructive outcome for the children especially.
The overpopulation of the planet offers us the opportunity to craft new patterns of social interaction. We need to alter our expectations and to create new social structures. This might be exactly what we need to save us from our current predictable population-influenced pending catastrophe.
-MoniqueDC , USA, Maryland
14 March 2012
This is a very complex topic, and the treatment of it in this article makes certain aspects available. At the same time, it does also touch a nerve, as it presents childlessness by choice as socially irresponsible, and dangerous for the future welfare of society. How about taking care of the future welfare of society not by encouraging women to produce more workers who will fund social welfare programs for the elderly, but by making it possible for parents of whatever gender to stay fully engaged in the workforce while raising children? How about authentically integrating immigrants who can provide the needed labor (and tax revenue) into nations that are afraid of a demographic drop off? Why is it only a women's job to secure the future anyway? If what women do is so important to the economy, why has there been a consistent ratio for decades of white women earning about 70 - 80% of male earnings, and a larger percent wage gap for African Americans and Latinos? To make sure that their most economically valuable contribution will be to bear children? That seems dumb. How about requiring more social responsibility, in terms of contributing revenue to social programs, from the global corporate sector that is increasing its wealth so spectacularly right now while helping to degrade the tax base locally? The future is a problem for all of us - and the opportunity to solve it is all of ours; its not a problem of "women's work," or "women's choices."
To me there is a deep conundrum why, in the year 2012, we have not yet figured out how to provide widespread and excellent childcare at the workplace wherever it is needed. Elder care the same. I know there are difficult rules and regulations, and real estate is expensive and traffic patterns are a problem, but it kind of boggles the imagination to think that we couldn't do it if we really wanted to. People have many obligations to care. But we seem to have no real way to challenge the debasement of our collective quality of life except by occupying parks -- which has not been, I hasten to observe, an inconsequential thing. To hector women, and allow them to be made the target of fundamentalist invective, is to allow those forces to go unchecked.
I also note that many scholars feel that a generous pro-natalist policy of maternity/paternity leave and childcare subsidies, such as those of France and Scandinavia, is strongly associated with the channeling of all women (mothers or not) into lesser status and lesser paid jobs, which are often also linked with "women's work" such as childcare and elementary education. That makes me think that there should be work/life subsidies for all persons, as a human right, and not only support for child bearing and caring. The rather laissez-faire US policy on this (really more like every man for himself) has worked better than that at least for many members the middle class, but it is unconscionable to have such fundamental life choices dictated by ability to pay to play, while we boast about the rich choices of our consumer economy and freedom of expression around the world.
In the current egregious attacks on women's health spearheaded by reactionary political hopefuls, - including enforced consent to unnecessary bodily intrusion passed into law in Texas and only narrowly averted in Virginia, -- we see the true price to our society of having inadequate social policy. Women, men and children - as well as oil - are the energy sources of the future. Drilling in the Gulf will not solve all our problems, nor will doing the outmoded drill in which we all reproduce ourselves. Rather, we need to develop a panoply of choices for the social as well as the natural ecology.
Laura Wexler
Professor of American Studies
Professor of Women's, Gender & Sexuality Studies
Director, The Photographic Memory Workshop at Yale
-Laura Wexler , New Haven, Connecticut
6 March 2012
I agree that in developed countries, childless by choice is grounded on the easy accessibility of university education for women. In these countries, professional careers are likely to be a very strong incentive for women to choose work over childbearing and child rearing responsibilities. I can also only imagine how this choice is beginning to adversely affect the economic programs of governments of developing countries in terms of distribution of funds for education and health care (particularly for senior citizens). Education and economics are indeed the main factors driving couples, particularly women, to be childless by choice. More troubling perhaps is the radical decrease of the labor force in the next few decades. Among other global events, voluntary childlessness is indeed cause to worry.
As I read the paper, I could not help but reflect about my country, the Philippines, a developing country. It appears to be an absolute reverse of developed nations. Prevailing poverty prevents women from access to secondary and university education. Thus, professional careers are not an option for the majority of the country's female population. And even if education access was addressed, there are not enough job opportunities in the country to supply the currently increasing human labor demand. This is the reason for the many Filipino overseas workers in Europe, the Middle East, the US as well as in neighboring Asian countries.
While the Philippine government is acutely aware of the inaccessibility of education, funding for education nonetheless continues to remain inadequate. In as far as government support for health care for senior citizens in my country, it is almost nil. The culture in this country - particularly the less "educated" masses which is majority of the population - is that the children are expected to take care of their aging parents. Consequently, parents traditionally want to have more children so that there is assurance for their future support as senior citizens.
Moreover, as a predominantly Roman Catholic nation, religion remains a formidable tool for political strategies of all sectors. To address poverty, pray. To address inadequate social services, pray. To assure a secure future, pray. Thus, in as far as voluntary childlessness is concerned, the promotion of any artificial contraception to balance economics, politics and population has constantly failed. Apparently, in my country, culture - as including religion - plays a crucial role in the continued population explosion.
In the end, I think the developed countries have a better chance of learning from the French model of government incentives for child bearing couples. Innovating the French model in the Philippines however would take more creativity, given the fact that mine is not a particularly rich country.
-Marcy , Philippines
5 March 2012
In my early 20's, while working as a school counselor to pre-pubescent and young teenaged boys, I realized the enormous and sometimes overwhelming impact of having children. Coming from a very large Brazilian family where women were expected to bear many children, I had the good fortune of having parents that stressed, above all, education and independence. Early motherhood without a husband did not appeal to me and would have been socially unacceptable in my traditional Catholic family. So I went to college and pursued a life of financial and emotional independence until, at 31 years of age, I married the father of two children, thereby reinforcing my decision not to have any offspring of my own.
You might say that, in my particular situation, upbringing and destiny conspired to keep me away from diapers, 3:00 am feedings, projectile vomiting and other joys of motherhood.
As an older married woman, at 69, I have the resources to maintain a modest but secure standard of living and I would hope that the words entitlement and financial help will not ever be a part of my vocabulary. I care for my health therefore delaying many issues that have already put some of my contemporaries in the grave, nursing home or under the care of their adult children.
I consider myself very fortunate to have been able to somewhat taylor my life, realizing fully well that not always can we do that. Not once have I regretted being childless. I celebrate the fact that I don't have to worry about my children being out all night, getting drunk and/or stoned, having children out of wedlock, or being forced to raise my grandchildren because the parents are not fit to care for them. Although I have countless friends, and my own husband, who have wonderful, caring and responsible sons and daughters, I think that there is a lot of luck involved in parenting and what you get is not always what you put in. All you have to do is read the news, watch television and see what I mean.
I don't feel any less of a woman for not being a mother. I dont feel in any way selfish, only wise, for not having succumbed to traditional expectations of my gender, for not going with the flow and procreating because that was expected of me, for not joining the hordes of women who think you must have offspring to care for you when you're old and feeble.
In a time and place (Brazil, circa 1940's and 50's) where being a parent seemed to be the only available choice, I had the foresight to go against the grain and be childless. I should be congratulated for that, not criticized.
-regina holleman , Pensacola, Florida
5 March 2012
It has always been expensive to have children. As a med-low income family here in the US with multiple children we chose to take the economic hit. It has always been a choice. I think it is unfair to pin it exclusively on wealth factors. Couples/Singles are increasingly placing more value on lifestyle.
-O , Dandlar
5 March 2012
In the US single women and families can no longer afford to have children. It has nothing to do with not wanting them, it is purely economical. As millions of American jobs are out-sourced, there is little hope of finding a new job. If there's no income to sustain a home, how can there be enough money to raise children?
Then there's the problem of medical insurance. If you're no longer employed, you no longer have medical insurance. So who is going to pay for the materinity care and delivery of those babies? No one. Not to mention the long term health care which doesn't exist for millions of American families.
The trend in the US is to reduce and even cut entitlements, which means no medical care, no income, no food, for those women and families who are unfortunate enough to lose their jobs. Even a college education is of little value in this declining economy.
Third world countries may continue to have children, but in developed and developing countries, it's just not econonomically feasible.
-Teri Heyer , Florida, United States
4 March 2012
As most things this is also a multi-factorial situation, but perhaps there two main reasons:
1. Human evolution is tightly linked to the evolution of our selfish ego, the 21st century man is exponentially more egoistic and self centered than previous generations even 50 or 100 years ago. Today it is all about "me, me and me...", with such slogans as "Life's only purpose is to enjoy it as much as possible", "You deserve it...", with brainwashing and bombardment of pampering, and different self satisfaction all around, especially for the wealthy and educated population, but overall to all levels of society in more and more countries. This is the same attitude that lead to the unsustainable overproduction/overconsumption economy that has run into the financial and economical crisis.
In such a picture with such attitude raising children is quite a burden on the individual, which burden is for life, way beyond the years of childhood.
As the younger generation is even more egoistic we cannot even guarantee that they would look after us when we become old...
2. In the times of global crisis, when more and more social layers lose any future prospects, losing their income, homes, health looking into a totally unpredictable future, why would they choose to bring children into such a future, they cannot afford it and they have nothing to offer to their children. Some people openly express that it is a torture bringing children into this world.
Thus simple education program trying to show people the beauty of parenthood, or making small scale adjustment on child planning, or contraception will have absolutely no effect on how many children future generations will have.
As with any other aspects of this multi level global crisis, which is more precisely a human system failure, we can only achieve long lasting and sustainable solution if we completely change ourselves, overcome our inherently selfish, egoistic nature and build totally new, mutually responsible, caring, considerate and equal human system, which is adapted to this closed, global interdependent network we exist in today.
We have to return to the same homeostasis the vast system of nature outside of humanity exists in, before our growing ego has disconnected us from it leading us to the dead end we fond ourselves in today.
-Zsolt , New Zealand