You are here

Policy Insights

So They Never Wanted Kids

Childlessness and the ex-post rationalisation problem
Copyright: pertusinas

by Patrick I. Dick

A couple of weeks ago, television on (the ever-encroaching) Valentine’s Day was predictably replete with romantic comedies. Most of the films I recognised had happy endings—appropriate on a day of upbeat marketing. In many cases, happy endings meant children, or at least the commitment to start a family. One network bucked the trend, however, apparently deciding that childlessness fit the bill.

The story itself was not necessarily unusual. It is not uncommon for young people to postpone childbearing in favour of career or social ambitious, or simply until a certain level of economic security is reached. This is particularly true in Europe, where the average age of first birth is pushing 30 in several countries. Nor is it uncommon for these preferences to change, especially as friends and peers take the decision to have children themselves.

This is precisely what made the film unusual. In the end, the protagonist and her partner stuck to their decision not to have children despite considerable peer pressure. “It’s just not for us,” she reiterates throughout the story, and they convincingly stick to that.

But is childlessness confined to the wealthy, educated, career-driven elites in big cities just like in our film? Despite being fairly relatable, the protagonist is exceptional in a few important ways. Namely, not everyone has the social drive to attend a gala on a Tuesday, and even fewer people have two apartments in Manhattan. In other words, when it comes to childlessness, does income matter?


Yes and no

We put this very question to Michaela Kreyenfeld, Professor of Sociology at the Hertie School of Governance, in Population Europe’s webinar earlier this month. She explained that recent research had shown the profile of childless men and women not only to vary across regions, but also to be changing. In Finland, for example, rising childlessness among cohorts born between 1960 and 1970, the latest for whom fertility data is available, was actually driven by childlessness among people with less education, a proxy for income. Childlessness among the highly educated, while high, remained steady at around 20%.

This suggests that there are socio-economic forces at work here. Yet ask childless adults in the UK, and the picture is less clear. Professor Kreyenfeld reported a recent survey found that by far the most prominent reasons for never having children were personal ("I never wanted to have children") or social ("I never met the right person").

Participants in the webinar were right to point out that such ex-post rationalisation should be taken with a grain of salt. Professor Kreyenfeld agreed, but pointed out that it still raises a number of questions. For instance, plenty of people "never wanted children" at age 21, but this often changes. The question is, why does it change for some people and not for others? And taken together, the Finnish and British figures suggest that assortative mating patterns—that is, how we choose our partners—may be related to childlessness. Are lower educated people in Finland having a tougher time finding Mr/Ms Right?


The powers that be

During the webinar, the Brussels-heavy audience posed several policy questions, as well. They mainly followed two lines of inquiry: 1.) how policy could affect childlessness trends, and 2.) how to prepare for the consequences of high childlessness in the future.

Both questions make two principal assumptions: a.) that, ceteris paribus, childlessness will remain high, and b.) that this will be an important driver of low fertility in Europe. It is useful to keep in mind that this is not necessarily certain. In the US childlessness has followed a clear downward trend since World War II. Furthermore, today’s aggregate levels of childlessness are, according to Professor Kreyenfeld, not necessarily unusual, and so are clearly not the only factor in low fertility. But like fertility, she pointed out that cross-border variations suggest single measures do not drive childlessness patterns, but whole policy frameworks—meaning labour market, parental leave, taxation, and childcare policies taken together.


Fertile ground for discussion

As one participant pointed out, governments cannot oblige people to have children or dictate how partners are chosen. If fertility is the concern, perhaps it would be more appropriate to determine which policies help families who do choose to have children to have more. This, of course, opens another can of worms—a debate on everything from childcare to equal pay to paternity leave would be in order. Professor Kreyenfeld pointed to Germany, whose government she explained had recently developed a comprehensive policy update to try and make work and parenting more compatible. Such an initiative might also be useful for determining which policies are related to both fertility and childlessness.

Until then, you’ll just have to give them the benefit of the doubt when they say "It’s just not for us."



About the author:

Patrick I. Dick, Consulting Editor for Population Europe.