Singletons

The world of only children

Opting Out of Having Children: Who is and Why

"The X Factor" has a big role.

"I was ahead of the curve and so were a lot of my friends," a childless, Baby Boomer friend mused. We then counted how many people we knew without children-some who were sure they didn't want children and some who did, but waited too long or acquiesced to their partners who vetoed the idea. The list was longest among our Generation X friends and acquaintances, those 33- to 46-years old.

Unlike most Baby Boomer who made getting married and having children a priority, Gen X women and men increasingly take and stick to a no-child stance. Women in particular took to heart the lessons of their feminist mothers and grandmothers: you can have a career and be successful and don't depend on a man to take care of you. Gen Xers appear to have listened as many of them opt out of childbearing or delay it.

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Choosing Career over Children

According to "The X Factor: Tapping into the Strengths of the 33- to 46-Year-Old Generation," a study from The Center for Work Life Policy in New York, "43 percent of Gen X women and nearly a third (32%) of Xer men do not have children at all. This phenomenon is especially true among Gen X minorities. More than half of Asian women are not parents." Forty-two percent of Caucasian Gen X women are childless.

This global trend is outlined in "The X Factor" study: "The average age of mothers at their first birth is steadily climbing in developed countries-from age 28 in Canada, Italy and France, to 29 in the Netherlands, Switzerland and Japan. In the UK, a fifth of all women born in 1975 or later will remain childless, and a quarter of women with university degrees will not have had children by their 40th birthday. In the U.S., the figure is even higher: 24 percent of college-educated women had not had a child at age 40."

Part of the explanation rests in the facts that women are staying in school longer and establishing themselves in careers before they marry and think about starting families. Being childless is a trend similar to having one-child that has picked up pace during the last decade. Five years ago Stefan Theil, Newsweek's Berlin bureau chief, wrote an article titled "Beyond Babies: Even in Once Conservative Societies, More and More Couples Are Choosing Not to Have Kids." He highlighted the trend of couples in many countries who choose to remain childless, and by way of example discussed the transformation of Greece from a conservative, childbearing society that "labeled childless women as barren spinsters" to a country with the lowest birth rate in the world. 

"Today the decision to have--or not have--a child is the result of a complex combination of factors, including relationships, career opportunities, lifestyle and economics," noted Theil. Those are the same reasons couples decide to limit their family size, often to one child and Gen Xers elect to remain childless including those who are married.

Married Without Children

"The X Factor" found that "26 percent of women without children ages 40 and over are, in fact, married or have a partner." The emphasis on having children and children being essential to a happy marriage has been reduced. The Pew Research Center found that only 41 percent of Americans say that children are "very important" to a successful marriage, down sharply from the 65 percent who said so twenty years ago. This change of heart also helps to explain the increase in childlessness. Respondents ranked children eighth out of ninth in importance on a list of items they associate with successful marriages. They place children well below "faithfulness," "happy sexual relationship," "sharing household chores," "adequate income," and "good housing." In 1990, children came up third in importance on the same list.

Sylvia Ann Hewlett, founder of the Center for Work Life Policy told the Huffington post: "It's also true that whether it's extreme jobs, or the financial pressure on this generation, many individuals decide they want to do two things well, and not three things badly. Those two things are their relationship and their career."

Some Gen X women who want babies and feel they can support them, go ahead with or without a partner before it's too late. However, the number of women who remain childless grows whether because of the lack of a suitable partner, having education loans to pay off, or fears of jeopardizing job security or advancement.

No Children, but Not Childless

Melanie Notkin, author of Savvy Auntie, looked at the U.S. Census fertility data, and found that "childlessness has been increasing steadily since 1976" among women of childbearing age. Notkin writes, "These data do not include women age 45 and older, so I can confidently make the assumption that nearly 50 percent of American women are childless, as few women age forty-five and older have children for the first time." That doesn't mean they have no children in their lives. Her book celebrates and guides aunts, great-aunts, godmothers, and women who choose to be "aunts" to friends' children. She says, "having a fulfilling career and being an aunt are the two most important aspects of my life." My Baby Boomer friend would agree; she is and has been a constant presence and exceptional auntie to her two nieces.

For more on this topic, see: The Kid-Ceiling: Women Feel It Long Before Seeing Glass-Ceiling and Women at the Top: Not So Fast

References:

Theil, Stefan, "Beyond Babies: Even in Once Conservative Societies, More and More Couples Are Choosing Not to Have Kids." Newsweek, September 3, 2006.

Hewlett, Sylvia Ann et al. The X Factor: Tapping into the Strengths of the 33 to 46-year-old Generation, Center for Work Life Policy, 2011.

Pew Research Center. As Marriage and Parenthood Drift Apart, Public Is Concerned about Social Impact. July, 2007

Notkin, Melanie. Savvy Auntie: The Ultimate Guide for Cool Aunts, Great-Aunts, Godmothers, and All Women Who Love Kids. William Morrow, 2011.  

Newman, Susan. The Case for the Only Child: Your Essential Guide, Health Communications, 2011.

Copyright 2011 by Susan Newman

Susan Newman, Ph.D., is a social psychologist and author. Her latest book is The Case for the Only Child: Your Essential Guide.

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