Below is an extract from Chapter 2 of my book, Living the Life Unexpected: 12 Weeks to Your Plan B for a Meaningful and Fulfilling Future without Children(Bluebird/PanMac 2016) in which I survey the facts and figures around the world. You can download the introduction and first chapter free here.
All data and sources in my book are fully academically referenced, should you wish to explore further. In Chapter 1 of the book, I reference a recent meta-analysis suggests that whilst perhaps 10 per cent of women without children choose not to be mothers (childfree), and 10 per cent can’t have them for medical reasons including infertility, 80 per cent of childless women are ‘childless by circumstance’.
Extract from Chapter 2: You’re Not Alone
If you think about it, mothers are fairly easy to spot because they either have children with them, or have some of the identifying accessories of modern motherhood with them, such as a baby seat in the back of their car or a cute picture of them as a screensaver on their phone, and even if none of these things are visible, they’ll be quite likely to bring their children into the conversation fairly soon. But childless women are not so easily identified and indeed many childless women know other childless women and yet can go for decades without mentioning it, for fear of embarrassing them. It’s possible to find ourselves feeling very alone, when in fact we have childless sisters in our midst. Although of course this can vary from urban to rural settings, and may also depend on your social circle. I didn’t know any at all.
The last time the rate of childlessness was this high in the population was for women born around 1900. Research has shown that this was due to two factors: the large number of women who remained unmarried due to the loss of so many men in the First World War, and the effect of the Great Depression of the 1930s on both fertility and finances. Rather shockingly these were known as the ‘surplus women’. The fact that it took the most devastating war this world has seen in terms of loss of life, coupled with the Great Depression, to suppress birth rates to the same extent as now shows that we are indeed living through a period of massive social change. It really isn’t ‘just us’.
Childlessness Around the World
To put childlessness into a global context, the 2013 United Nations Fertility Report states that since the UN’s 1994 International Conference on Population and Development, the number of low-fertility countries (with 2.0 children per woman or fewer) has increased from 51 to 70. Within those countries, childlessness amongst women aged 40–44 has increased across Europe and Eastern Asia, with five countries now having 1 in 5 women remaining childless, a statistic unknown in 1994.
UK and Ireland: According to the UK Office for National Statistics, 1 in 5 women (20 per cent) born between 1961 and 1966 remain without children, dropping slightly to 19 per cent for those born in 1967. The most recent ‘completed childbearing’ data available, for those born in 1968, drops again to 18 per cent. However, this is still double the 1 in 9 (9 per cent) of their mothers’ generation. From speaking to many childless women born in the 1970s, I think it’s quite likely that this may grow to 1 in 4 women (25 per cent) because of the combined impact of ‘social infertility’ (being unable to find a suitable partner), along with delaying or not feeling able to have children for financial reasons due to the global economic downturn since 2008. The data available so far shows that up to 47 per cent of women born in the 1970s were childless at the age of 30, compared to up to 28 per cent of their mothers’ generation, which may be one such early sign. Ireland’s rate of childlessness is similarly 18 per cent for those born in 1965.
USA: Almost 1 in 5 women (20 per cent) remained childless by the mid-2000s, but this number dropped to 15 per cent in 2014. Some analysis predicts that childbearing delayed due to the global economic downturn may prove to be ‘fertility foregone’, but it is too early to tell for sure. This compares to data from the mid-1970s, which showed that 10 per cent of women were childless. The childbearing rate of women in their 20s fell 15 per cent between 2007 and 2012 and it remains to be seen how many of these ‘Millennials’ go on to have children in their 30s and early 40s.
Canada: Almost 19 per cent of Canadian women were childless aged 40–44 in 2011, more than double the previously recorded rate in 1992. Also, according to the 2011 census, there are now more people living in single-person households than households with children. The same survey also shows that 44.5 per cent of Canadian couples are ‘without children’.
Australia and New Zealand: Almost 1 in 4 women (24 per cent) of childbearing age are expected to remain childless in Australia. This compares to 9 per cent for women born between 1930 and 1946, who benefited from the improved economic outlook after World War II. In New Zealand, 1 in 4 women (25 per cent) born in 1975 are expected to remain childless, compared to 10 per cent of women aged 44–49 in its 2006 survey, and 9 per cent in 1981.
Europe: France and Sweden have two of the lowest rates of childlessness (due to liberal state support for working mothers and families) at 10 per cent and 13 per cent, whilst Germany has the highest rate at 28 per cent, with Italy coming in second at 24 per cent and then Spain at almost 22 per cent. Some of the other European countries with a high rate of childlessness (around 20 per cent) are Austria, Finland and the Netherlands.
East Asia: In Japan, of those women born in the 1960s, almost 13 per cent have no children. However, for those born in the 1970s, it is expected that 30 per cent (almost 1 in 3) will remain childless. Singapore has the highest current rate of childlessness amongst women aged 40–44, at 23 per cent (almost 1 in 4). According to the UN report, East Asia would appear to be the area where childlessness is growing most quickly.