More American Women Than Ever are Opting to Live Childfree

Almost one in five women in their 40s does not have biological children of her own. That is according to a survey published last year by the nonprofit, nonpartisan Pew Research Center for the People and the Press. In other words, a number of factors have led to a wider acceptance of the notion that being childfree is an acceptable and “normal” life choice.

Here are some interesting trends that the research has shown:

The higher a woman’s level of education, the less likely she is to have kids. Of women ages 40-44 with master’s or equivalent or higher degrees, almost a quarter have no kids of their own. There is a direct correlation between education and being childfree. The proportion has almost doubled since 1976.

Pew Research Center for People and the Press

Women who have never married are most likely not to have kids. But the rates for married and once-married women are on the rise.

While white women are most likely not to have borne children, the rates for black, Hispanic and Asian women are rising more rapidly than they are for white women.

So . . . why?

In 2002, 59 percent of adults disagreed with the statement that people without children “lead empty lives.” Almost two-thirds of survey respondents in 1990 felt that children are very important for a successful marriage. That number fell to 41 percent just 17 years later. In other words, not having kids is more okay, societally speaking. It’s not unreasonable to assume that such a drastic change in attitude has contributed to less pressure on could-be parents to reproduce.

A study in Norway uncovered a different perspective on why women with higher education levels have fewer kids. If a woman has kids when she is young, she is much more likely not to pursue higher education, hereby skewing the results. In other words, it’s the act of procreating that holds the mom back, creating the correlation between childbearing and less formal education.

According to the Pew Research Center, scholars say social pressure to bear kids has diminished, leaving the decision to be more of a personal choice. Add to that opportunities for desirable careers and convenient means of contraception and you have the formula for competing goals and uncomplicated ways to avoid impediments to those objectives.

Add to the mix the fact that people are marrying later in life – in no small part due to educational and subsequent career opportunities for women – and the likelihood of childbearing diminishes. Since the likelihood of successful pregnancy declines with age, some women who would like to eventually bear children never will, in spite of the availability of fertility treatments.

How many kids per woman?

            That question was not dealt with in the Pew survey. We were wondering how many kids a woman is likely to have, particularly as it relates to education and career. What we have discovered is – as you might guess – fewer kids for more-educated women. According to the Population Reference Bureau, “But while women may delay marriage and children to pursue a degree, women with at least a bachelor’s degree are actually more likely to get married than women with less education and are more likely to wait until marriage to start a family. In 2008, a woman with a graduate or professional degree had an average of 1.6 children and a woman with a bachelor’s degree had 1.7 children, compared with a 2.0-child average for high school graduates and 2.5 average for women who never completed high school (see table).”

Women Ages 40 to 44 by Education, 2008

Number of Children
Ever Born
Less than high school 2.5
High school graduate 2.0
Some college 1.9
Bachelors’ degree 1.7
Graduate or professional degree 1.6

Source: Janet Lawler Dye, “Fertility of American Women: 2008,” Current Population Reports P20-563 (2010), accessed at, on Nov. 17, 2010.


The upshot

If we want our young adults to be all they can be in terms of career potential and being well-rounded citizens, we must encourage them to think twice before becoming young parents. In this way we do our part to keep population in check, to help young people attain good careers, and to lessen a variety of consequent burdens on society of overpopulation.


  1. Your resent posts look like a smorgasborg of statistics, which can be helpful in understanding trends. However, statistics can also lead to misunderstanding. When we hear that a quarter of women 40-44 years old with an advanced degree are childfree, it suggests that smart women don’t have kids. Giving it a little more thought tells us that three quarters of the same group of women do have kids.
    All of these statistics may well support your position, but then again it may not.
    I know pleanty of mature women who have no kids and no regrets, but they are just one narrow column in the bell curve.

  2. Carolyn says:

    Interesting since I fall into this catagory of women who have an education and prefer to remain “child free” . I didn’t think about this being a statistical norm. Of course, Hugo brings up a point that even though many women are like me, not all are. A lot of my friends have kids, or wish they had kids. For myself, I can always borrow someone else’s. There seems to be a babysitter shortage.

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