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Childfree Revolution?

March 10, 2011

About ten years ago, when I began researching Families of Two: Interviews with Happily Married Couples Without Children by Choice, I found there were so many childfree people out there who were thrilled someone finally wanted to talk with them. They felt they were living in the tributaries of society. When the book came out, it was clear the public wanted to hear from us, as it found childfree couples a provocative topic. Since then, we may still be in the minority, but are more heard than ever before.

About the time Families of Two was released, author Madelaine Cain wrote about a “childless revolution” in her book The Childless Revolution. If we look back on the last ten years, can we say a revolution has been occurring? Let’s take a look from a few different angles.

The Numbers

The U.S. Census has been tracking “childlessness” figures for years now. However, it does not track the choice factor—whether a woman does not have children by choice or circumstance.
According to the Census, in the year 2000, of women aged 40-44, 19% did not have children. The Census has just released 2008 figures, and in the same age range, 18% did not have children. During that time in 2006, it was 20 percent. So over the last ten years, it has hovered around one in five women ages 40-44 not having children.

Another federal organization called the National Survey on Family Growth (NSFG) has tracked the choice factor. Its last report published in 2005 with data from 2002 indicated that of women between the ages 15-44, just over 6% described themselves as voluntarily childless.

A breakdown by more definitive age groups would tell us much more. For example, a 15 year old, 25 year old, even these days a 30 year old, saying she is voluntarily childless is different than a 44 year old. Another report is due out before the end of the year with data from the years 2006-2008. It will have the large same age range so will have the same issue when interpreting the data. The NSFG has told me that the new numbers will likely be about the same, at six percent.

While there are issues with the Census and NSFG data, we do know that the number of childless women 40-44 doubled between 1976 and 2008. A recent report by the Pew Research Center indicates that “among all women ages 40-44, the proportion that has never given birth, 18% in 2008, has grown by 80% since 1976, when it was 10%.”

With numbers like that, it’s fair to say that there has been a revolution of more women not having children, but we just don’t know if it’s a revolution of women voluntarily choosing not to have children. We can’t say if there has been a revolution with men either, as data like this is not collected on them.

However, predictions that include men have been made for married couples without children. In the 1990s, there were predictions that the number of childless couples would increase as much as 50% by 2010 (including empty nesters, childless by choice and not). The U.S. Census predicts that by 2010 that married couples with children will account for just 20% of households.

So we shall see. If this is true, it could be considered a milestone trend for sure.

Technology and Media

Thanks to the advances in technology in the last ten years, there has definitely been a revolution of the childfree being out there and heard. The internet has offered a powerful platform for people to learn about this choice through childfree sites, forums, blogs, and ezine articles. More than ever before, the childfree have resources, and places to go for information and support. It’s also been a way for childfree to connect and find friends. The international social organization, No Kidding!, has grown from just a chapter or two ten years ago to 40 chapters today from all over the world.

In terms of media, we see much more now than we did on television and radio than we did ten years ago on this topic. It has been featured in many newspaper and magazines. Just taking me as an example, through television media alone during my book tour, I reached about 20 million people on the childfree topic, and reached even more since. I did more than 100 radio interviews, and continue to radio today. And there are a growing host of others out there, authors, journalists, and more writing and engaging discussion on the childfree that are contributing to the explosion of access to information on the childfree.

Changing Attitudes

Public attitudes toward those who do not have children have helped influence the rise in the numbers of childless. Over the past few decades, people have become more accepting of people without children. According to the Pew Research Center, a survey done by the National Opinion research Center’s General Social Survey project indicated that in 1988, 39% of adults disagreed that people without children “lead empty lives.” In 2002, 59% disagreed with this.

Public attitudes about children being central to a good marriage have also changed. A study by the Pew Research Center in 2007 indicated that in 1990, 65% of adults said that children are very important for a successful marriage. In 2007, this figure dropped to 41 percent. As the childfree choice becomes even more accepted, we will continue to see a rise in the numbers who make it.

The growing numbers, surge of information, and attitudinal changes have influenced a larger attitudinal trend—that parenthood is a “lifestyle choice,” an option, rather than a given in life.

The Future

Here are a few thoughts on this from my talk at this year’s No Kidding! convention:

As more people see parenthood as an option in life, it’s time to work toward finding ways to more directly challenge the source of nonacceptance of the childfree choice: pronatalism.

Examples of this include efforts to educate children early in life that parenthood is an option, not a mandate in life.  As they grow older they need solid tools that help them look at the pros and cons of each lifestyle choice, and assess which is right for them.  Policy needs to shift from rewarding reproduction to promoting reproductive responsibility.  When these kinds of things begin to happen, we’ll begin seeing the real revolution.


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