by Michaela Kreyenfeld
Explanations for childlessness have long abounded in popular culture. Some have chalked it up to decaying mores, others to cataclysmic events like war or economic disaster—still others to policy, which can be the cause or effect of any of these. But like so much in science, reality does not necessarily fit, or at least fit nicely, with what we "observe" on a daily basis.
Childlessness in Europe: Patterns, Causes and Contexts (Springer 2016, forthcoming), a volume I have edited together with Dirk Konietzka, begins to shed new light on these disparities with new data and new ways of understanding them (all references mentioned in this blog post refer to this book). The upshot: childlessness, a phenomenon at once familiar and foreign, is changing—but perhaps not how you’d expect it to.
You will be forgiven if you understood a shift in childlessness in Europe to necessarily mean upwards. Low fertility rates throughout the continent certainly seem to point in that direction.
However, family demographers agree that high childlessness are nothing unusual, historically. For example, there is plenty of evidence showing that 20 to 30 % of women born around 1900 in many European countries remained childless. In the case of this cohort, it is not hard to see why. This was the generation (cohort) most affected by World War I and the Great Depression—with both hitting Europe before these women turned 30.
Far from continuing to rise, however, childlessness in most European countries proceeded to fall, and consistently, through the generation who entered their reproductive period with Europe’s post-World War II economic boom and the "golden era" of marriage.
Since then, we can see that childlessness in German-speaking countries rose again, however, settling at a fairly high level, around or above 20%, in the cohorts of women born between 1960 and 1970.
We can also see interregional differences. For instance, we see that Scandinavian countries, with the exception of Finland, have much lower childlessness than the German-speaking countries, as do France and Belgium. In most Scandinavian countries, France and Belgium, childlessness has settled between 13 and 15% (for an overview of childlessness levels in selected European countries, see Figure 1).
Figure 1: Share of childless women (cohort 1965) in selected European countries (in %).
Sources: Bujard/Lück, Kinderlosigkeit und Kinderreichtum: Gründe und Daten für eine paritätsspezifische Fertilitätsforschung. Zeitschrift für Familienforschung 2015, 3, 255-269; Köppen/Mazuy/Toulemon, Childlessness in France, in Kreyenfeld/Konietzka (Hrsg.), Childlessness in Europe. Contexts, Causes, and Consequences, 2016; Kreyenfeld, Parity specific birth rates for West Germany: An attempt to combine survey data and vital statistics, Zeitschrift für Bevölkerungswissenschaft 2002, 27, 327-357; OECD, OECD Family Database, 2016, http://www.oecd.org/els/family/database.htm (9 February 2016); Sobotka, Childlessness in Europe: Reconstructing Long-Term Trends among Women Born in 1900-1972, in Kreyenfeld/Konietzka (Hrsg.), Childlessness in Europe. Contexts, Causes, and Consequences, 2016.
This is not the case in southern and, in some cases, central and eastern Europe. Low childlessness in countries like Spain, Greece and Italy are giving way to German-like numbers. Meanwhile, in central and eastern Europe, nearly universal childbearing is showing signs of convergence with western European levels. The latter change will be driven by women who entered their reproductive period after the fall of the Iron Curtain.
The upward trend is not universal, however. In the US, childlessness has followed a clear downward trend for the cohort born 1960 and later, and the UK has begun to show signs of trend-reversal, too.
Longitudinal studies and cross-border comparisons are certainly a good start. But with better data we can start to map out the pathways to childlessness.
As early as the turn of the twentieth century, it has been suggested that higher childlessness could be partially explained by women’s increasing emancipation. In this case, more job opportunities for women in the service sector meant more economically independent women.
Jumping ahead 100 years and a short distance, we can test this with the childlessness data from different educational groups in Germany. The assumption here is that higher education leads to higher earning potential, and therefore economic independence. While the data suggest that education does have an effect on childlessness, the effect is not the same for everyone. In fact, in East Germany we see that women with the lowest level of education had the highest rate of childlessness.
Data from Finland show that this is not necessarily unusual. Anna Rotkirch and Anneli Miettinen (2016) find that the country’s gradually rising childlessness rate is being driven by childlessness among people with less education, not more.
Educational data therefore indicates that women’s emancipation is not the sole driver of higher childlessness. Survey data from the UK presented by Anne Berrington (2016) confirms this. She reports that among the childless born in 1970, the top two reasons for never having children were that they 1.) never wanted children, and 2.) they never found the right partner. This went for both men and women. Meanwhile, “I have been focused on my career” accounted for only 3 % of men 2 % of women.
It is fair to say that postponing children (6 and 5 %, respectively) could be linked to professional activity, and the response “no particular reason” (18 and 12 %) needs some explanation. Ex-post rationalisation aside, however, it is interesting to think partnership dynamics might be playing an important role.
Kreyenfeld and Konietzka (2016) map the trajectories of childless men and women. They show that a turbulent partnership biography as well as permanent singlehood strongly correlate with later life childlessness.
Kuhnt and her colleagues (2016) use panel data to isolate the determinants for change in fertility desires over time. The study confirms that economic concerns do not play a significant role in changes in fertility preferences. There is no doubt that the changing role of women in society and families has affected fertility and childlessness. However, the effect does not seem to be uniform over time.
Predicting childlessness levels into the future is notoriously difficult. But we can identify trends. Childlessness in German-speaking and Scandinavian countries has plateaued, but has risen in southern and, in some cases, central and eastern Europe. Meanwhile, the US and possibly the UK are showing signs that more women are having children. For those who are not, we see partnership dynamics perhaps playing an important part.
So, we can say that patterns in childlessness are indeed changing and evolving. But before we can decide on policies, or even whether these patterns are good or bad, we need to understand what is really behind them.
About the author:
Michaela Kreyenfeld, Professor of Sociology at the Hertie School of Governance, Berlin/Germany.