A Long-Range Glance at Rates of Childlessness

rates of childlessness

Pew Research Center has some hot off the press fertility statistics. In addition to figures relating to motherhood postponement and average numbers of children, the data include “rates of childlessness” from many countries. The reported numbers inspired me to review statistics from the past to get a feel for more of a longer range picture.

The US

Gretchen Livingston of Pew Research Center indicates, “All told, the share of U.S. women at the end of their childbearing years who ever had a baby now stands at 86%, while 14% are childless.” As I discuss in The Baby Matrix, in the 1930s about 20% of women were childless (as most academic research does, here I am using the “childless” term to encompass all women without children), in 1970 this figure was 12%, and until recently, it hovered at around one in five women, or around 20 percent. So one way to look at the longer trajectory – the latest childless percentage now sits closer to the 1970 percentage.

Germany and Italy

A brief look at a few other countries over time is interesting as well. In The Baby Matrix I discuss numbers from Germany. A 2002 study indicated that 27% women 42 years old had no children. A 2005 study revealed that 20% of women in their 40s in this country had no children. And a 2008 study showed that 28% of women 41 years old had no children. The latest Pew numbers show 23% of women “at the end of their childbearing years” have never given birth. So looking at a longer timeline – the figures have landed in the 20-28% range, the latest hovering in the lower twenties range.

Looking at Italy, in the book I discuss 2002 statistics that showed overall, about 15% of Italian women did not have children. Eight years later, a 2010 report by Milan-based International Center for Family Studies (ICFS) “revealed that 53.4% of Italian families” had no children. Now eight years later, the Pew study shows 21% of Italian women at the end of their childbearing years have never given birth. Even though the ICFS study includes ‘families’ which implies married people not sampled only at the end of childbearing years, and the latest Pew statsitics don’t include marital status, the percentage differences over time are still worth contemplating. Whether over 50% or closer to 20%, much of what I have read about Italy’s numbers has had much to do with economic factors associated with having children.

UK and Ireland

Other snapshots I discuss in The Baby Matrix include the UK and Ireland. In 2008, one in four women and one in five men in the UK who were 45 years old did not have children. Pew’s recent numbers indicate UK women at the end of their childbearing years at 18 percent. In 2002, 15% of Irish women born in 1960 had no children. In 2012, 18% of Irish women born around 1965 had no children. Pew’s latest numbers for Irish women at the end of their childbearing years at 19 percent.

Finland and the Netherlands

I also briefly discuss a University of Oxford report that has numbers for additional European countries, including Finland and the Netherlands. In 2002, 18 percent of Finnish women born in 1960 had no children. Similarly, the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development numbers indicate that for Finnish women born around 1965, 20 percent did not have children. Latest Pew numbers for childless women at the end of their childbearing years in Finland remain at 20 percent. In the Netherlands, 2002 figures show that 17 percent of women born in 1960 had no children. For those born around 1965, this figure was 18 percent. Latest Pew figures: 18 percent.

Of these countries, I ponder the longer trend lines for the United States the most. In the US, what do rates of childlessness returning to percentages closer to 1970 suggest?

I welcome your thoughts!

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