Over 20% of adults do not want children and intend to remain child-free


The U.S. Supreme Court’s overturning of Roe v. Wade paved the way for limits on abortion but also created uncertainty around the future of birth control.

This could have far-reaching implications for many people as a research team from Michigan State University found over one in five Michigan adults do not want children.

“We found that 21.6% of adults, or about 1.7 million people, in Michigan do not want children and therefore are ‘childfree.’ That’s more than the population of Michigan’s nine largest cities,” said Zachary Neal, associate professor in MSU’s psychology department and co-author of the study.

The study — published in Scientific Reports — used a set of three questions to identify childfree individuals separately from parents and other types of nonparents. The researchers used data from a representative sample of 1,500 adults who completed MSU’s State of the State Survey, conducted by the university’s Institute for Public Policy and Social Research. Because different types of nonparents are impossible to distinguish in official statistics, Neal explained that this study is one of the first to specifically count childfree adults.

“People — especially women — who say they don’t want children are often told they’ll change their mind, but the study found otherwise,” said Jennifer Watling Neal, associate professor in the psychology department at MSU and co-author of the study.

“People are making the decision to be childfree early in life, most often in their teens and twenties. And, it’s not just young people claiming they don’t want children. Women who decided in their teens to be childfree are now, on average, nearly 40 and still do not have children.”

The study was conducted in Michigan, but according to the 2021 census, Michigan is demographically similar to the United States as a whole. Because of this, Neal said, if the pattern holds up nationally, it would mean 50 to 60 million Americans are childfree.

“Following the U.S. Supreme Court’s overturning of Roe v. Wade, a large number of Americans are now at risk of being forced to have children despite not wanting them,” said Watling Neal. If further precedents are overturned and birth control becomes harder to access, many young women who have decided to be childfree may also have difficulty avoiding pregnancy.

Because so many people are childfree, the researchers said this group warrants more attention. They hope future work will expand beyond Michigan and will help the public understand both why people decide to be childfree and the consequences they experience from that decision.

Childfree individuals are recognized in the popular media [4, 5, 7] and academic research [8, 9] as a distinct group of non-parents who voluntarily choose not to have children. However, to date, few research studies have attempted to distinguish childfree individuals from other types of non-parents and those that do have used non-representative samples [11, 12], relied on definitions based on fertility rather than the desire to have children [13] or focused only on women [17–19].

In this study, we attempted to fill existing gaps in the literature by exploring who the childfree are in a representative sample of Michigan adults. We estimated the population prevalence and demographics of childfree individuals, then examined whether childfree individuals differ from parents, not-yet-parents, and childless individuals in terms of their life satisfaction, political ideology, and personality. We also examined whether childfree individuals are viewed as an outgroup toward whom others feel less warm.

Using a weighted representative sample of Michigan adults, we found that over a quarter (27%) of the adult population identified as childfree. Given Michigan’s adult population of 7.8 million, this suggests that over 2 million Michigan adults identify as childfree and do not want children.

Moreover, among the childfree, 35% are in a partnered relationship, suggesting that couples who do not want children represent an important type of family. Interestingly, the estimated population prevalence of childfree individuals in our study dramatically exceeds the estimates of 2—9% reported by earlier studies focused on women and fertility [13, 15, 16].

One possible explanation for our much higher prevalence estimate is the fact that, unlike earlier studies estimating childfree prevalence, our sample included individuals from groups who are more likely to report being childfree: individuals beyond childbearing age, men, and those who were stressed or anxious about COVID-19. To investigate this possibility, we estimated the population prevalence of parental statuses by subgroups (see Table 6).

We observe very small differences in the prevalence of identification as childfree between age-, gender-, or COVID stress-based subgroups, which suggests that our higher prevalence estimate is not related to the inclusion of these groups in our sample. A second possibility is that because our measurement of parental status is not based on fertility or age, it is better able to capture previously hidden childfree individuals (e.g. infertile individuals who nonetheless identify as childfree) and thus provides a more accurate estimate of the prevalence of this identity in the population.

Indeed, the prevalence rate of childfree individuals in our study is comparable to the prevalence rate in another recent survey conducted by Pew Research Center that also explicitly asked respondents whether they wanted children [26]. Although future research is needed to verify the prevalence of childfree individuals, because we find that over 1 in 4 Michigan adults identified as childfree, it is important to better understand this sizeable group of individuals.

Table 6

Estimated population prevalence of parental statuses by subgroups (Mean (SE)).

AgeGenderStress about COVID-19a
Childfree0.3 (0.03)0.24 (0.02)0.29 (0.03)0.25 (0.02)0.27 (0.02)0.26 (0.03)
Parent0.37 (0.03)0.66 (0.02)0.48 (0.03)0.6 (0.02)0.55 (0.03)0.51 (0.03)
Not Yet Parent0.27 (0.03)0.01 (0.00)0.15 (0.03)0.1 (0.01)0.1 (0.02)0.15 (0.03)
Childless0.06 (0.02)0.09 (0.01)0.09 (0.02)0.06 (0.01)0.07 (0.01)0.09 (0.02)

a Measured by asking “How has COVID-19 impacted how stressed or anxious you are overall,” on a five-point Likert scale where “somewhat more” and “much more” were coded “high” and “about the same,” “somewhat less,” and “much less” were coded as “low.”

In many ways, childfree individuals are similar to parents, not-yet-parents, and childless individuals. After controlling for demographic characteristics, we found no differences in life satisfaction between childfree individuals and parents, not-yet-parents, or childless individuals.

This finding mirrors some past research comparing the life satisfaction of parents and childfree individuals [12, 41] and is consistent with the notion that other demographic characteristics (e.g., relationship status, education, age) are more important correlates than parental status [34]. Moreover, this finding adds to a growing body of literature that contradicts folk and academic theories that having children leads to higher levels of life satisfaction [27].

With only one exception, after controlling for demographic characteristics, we also found no differences in personality traits between childfree individuals and parents, not-yet-parents, or childless individuals. We do find that childfree individuals were less agreeable than not-yet-parents. However, failure to replicate other personality trait differences identified by prior research may be explained by our ability to control for a broader range of demographic characteristics than earlier studies [11].

The fact that we were unable to identify significant differences in personality traits between childfree individuals and parents suggests that the decision to be childfree is not driven by individual personality traits, but instead may be driven by other individual (e.g., political ideology) or situational (e.g., economic) factors.

Indeed, we did find that childfree individuals were significantly more liberal than parents, even after controlling for demographic characteristics. More liberal individuals may be more likely to decide to be childfree to promote or facilitate more egalitarian gender roles [13], or out of a concern for the environment [80], recognizing that choosing not to have children is the single most impactful action that an individual can take to reduce carbon emissions [81].

Although childfree individuals and couples are numerous in the population, and although they are similar in most respects to individuals with other parental statuses, our results suggest that they may still be viewed by others as an outgroup. After controlling for demographic characteristics, individuals who have or want(ed) children felt substantially less warm toward childfree individuals than childfree individuals felt toward each other.

For example, childfree individuals indicated an average interpersonal warmth toward other childfree individuals of 73°, while others felt 8-11° cooler toward childfree individuals. To contextualize these values and their difference, it is similar to Catholics’ warm feelings toward each other (83°) and Protestants’ much cooler feelings toward Catholics (66°) [82].

Although the difference in interpersonal warmth that we observe is modest in absolute numbers, recent reports suggest that it may have real effects, for example, in limiting childfree individuals’ ability to request the same work-life balance accommodations offered to parents [83, 84].

The current study has several strengths including measurement that allowed us to distinguish childfree individuals from other types of non-parents, independently of these individuals’ fertility, in a large, representative sample. However, our results should be interpreted in light of some limitations. First, although our sample was representative, it was only drawn from the state of Michigan. Notably, the state of Michigan closely resembles the overall US population in terms of race (78.2% White vs. 72%), age (median 39.8 vs. 38.4), income (median $59,584 vs. $65,712), and education (30% at least a BA vs. 33.1%).

Nevertheless, future studies should examine the prevalence and characteristics of childfree individuals in a nationally representative sample. Second, our data were cross-sectional and do not allow us to look at changes in individuals’ identification as childfree across the life course. Future studies should incorporate longitudinal trend and within-person panel designs to characterize trends in the prevalence of childfree individuals over time and to better understand the factors influencing the decision to be childfree.

Third, although our total sample was large, small samples within parental status groups limited our statistical power to explore potential intersectionalities using parental status interactions (e.g., parental status-by-gender, parental status-by-race, or parental status-by-age interactions). Future studies with larger samples or designs that oversample individuals with less common parental statuses (i.e., childfree individuals, childless individuals and not-yet-parents) could examine these potential interactions in more depth.

Our study was conducted within the unique context of the global COVID-19 pandemic, which altered family dynamics [85] and increased unpaid care work [86]. It is possible our findings may be driven, in part, by conditions of the pandemic. However, our childfree prevalence rate mirrored pre-pandemic estimates found in a national sample using similar measurement [26] and prevalence rates did not significantly differ by reported levels of stress due to COVID-19.

Furthermore, the childfree prevalence rate in our study was 24% for older respondents who, given their age, were unlikely to have changed their plans to have children due to the pandemic. Still, it would be helpful to collect post-pandemic data to examine the potential influences of COVID-19 on childfree prevalence rates as well as on interactions between parental status and the other psychosocial characteristics.

Despite these limitations, the current study adds to a growing body of literature on childfree individuals [8, 9]. Our findings indicate that the current prevalence of childfree individuals dramatically exceeds prior estimates, and that childfree individuals and couples may be more numerous in the U.S. than researchers previously thought [13, 15, 16].

Furthermore, although childfree individuals are viewed as an outgroup toward whom others feel less warm, they are generally quite similar to parents, not-yet-parents, and childless individuals in life satisfaction and personality. Given the prevalence of this often-overlooked parental status, the risks of their outgroup status, and their potential role in politics as a uniquely liberal group, it is important for demographic research to distinguish the childfree from others and to better understand these individuals who choose not to have children.

reference link: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC8208578/

Original Research: Open access.
Prevalence, age of decision, and interpersonal warmth judgements of childfree adults” by Zachary Neal et al. Scientific Reports


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