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4102.0 - Australian Social Trends, 2002  
Previous ISSUE Released at 11:30 AM (CANBERRA TIME) 09/05/2002   
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Contents >> Family >> Family Formation: Trends in childlessness

Family Formation: Trends in childlessness

According to 2000 estimates, about a quarter of women in their reproductive years are likely never to have children.

A growing proportion of Australian women and their partners are not having children. Estimates for 2000 suggested that 24% of women currently in their reproductive years would never have children.1 This trend is also seen in other developed countries, with recent estimates of permanent childlessness for women in the United Kingdom and the United States of America of 20% and 22% respectively.2

Although the proportion of women who remained childless was higher early in the 20th century, estimated levels of childlessness at the start of the 21st century are a social issue for at least two reasons. Firstly, childlessness contributes to fertility decline, with ramifications for the future size and age structure of the population (see Australian Social Trends 2002, Fertility futures). Secondly, increasing levels of childlessness mean that in the future there will be more older people with no children. It is widely recognised that family members, in particular children, contribute to the support and wellbeing of older people.3 Without such informal care, the reliance on formal care through government funded programs or privately purchased services may increase.

This article outlines trends in childlessness and some of the reasons for women and their partners remaining childless. Additionally, the characteristics of women who remain childless, including their educational attainment, cultural background, religion and labour force participation, are discussed.


Childlessness
Most of the data for this article are from the 1996 Census of Population and Housing.

Lifetime childlessness is the proportion of women who have reached the end of their child-bearing years (ages 15-44 years) and have not had any children. This can be derived for women aged 45 years and over from a census question which asks each woman the number of (live) babies she has ever had. The proportion of women aged 45-49 years who have never had a baby represents the group who has most recently completed their reproductive life, childless. These women were born 45 to 49 years before the census date. For example, the women who were 45-49 years old at the time of the 1996 Census, were born between 1946 and 1951. Women of younger ages may still have children. As a result, the measure of lifetime childlessness from census data is useful for historical trends, but not current patterns.

The current level of childlessness in a given year is the proportion of women (aged 15-44 years) who are likely never to have children if current fertility patterns were to prevail until they reach the end of their child-bearing years. This can be derived from the number of women at each age who have a first birth during the year, using birth registrations data. Further information is available in Births, Australia, 1999 and 2000 (ABS cat. no. 3301.0).


Trends in lifetime childlessness
The level of childlessness among different generations of women is influenced by the political, economic and social circumstances that they experienced during their child-bearing years. Lifetime childlessness, derived from census data collected throughout the century, was at its highest level for women born between 1901 and 1905 (31%). These women were in their child-bearing years during the Great Depression, a period when economic constraints led to both postponement of marriage and avoidance of child-bearing within marriage.4 The proportion of women who remained childless fell for successive generations of women born during the first 40 years of the 20th century.

About 20% of women born between 1910 and 1920 remained childless, partly as a result of family disruption during the Depression and the Second World War.4 However, childlessness was at its lowest level for the century (approximately 9%) among women born between 1930 and 1946, who benefited from the improved economic outlook after World War II. This period was characterised by both earlier marriage, high marriage rates (9 to 11 per 1,000 population) and high fertility within marriage. The post-war 'baby boom' thus resulted from a 'marriage boom'.4

The level of lifetime childlessness began to increase among women born after 1946, who were in their child-bearing years from the late 1960s onwards. This, along with the falling average number of children in families, contributed to the decline in the total fertility rate during the 1970s. In a context of widely available contraception, this period saw increasing proportions of women moving away from the more traditional role of wife and mother at home, to participate in paid employment, either in combination with parenting or without having children at all. Of women aged 45-49 years at the time of the 1996 Census, 11% had never had a child.

PROPORTION OF FEMALES WHO WERE CHILDLESS AT AGE 45-49 YEARS(a)

(a) Based on data from Censuses of Population and Housing.

Source: Rowland, D. T., 1998. The prevalence of childlessness in cohorts of older women, Australasian Journal on Ageing, vol. 17, no. 1, pp.18-23.


Recent estimates of childlessness
For women who have not yet reached the end of their child-bearing years, current levels of childlessness can be estimated from births registration data. In 1986, about one in five women were likely to remain childless. In 2000 the level was about one in four women.

Current levels of childlessness vary across the States and Territories. Patterns of childlessness derived from first birth fertility rates for 2000 suggest that 33% of women in the Australian Capital Territory and 31% of women in Victoria will remain childless. These comparatively high levels of childlessness are associated with higher average ages of mothers at the birth of their first child (28.6 years in both the Australian Capital Territory and Victoria) compared with other States. Queensland (22%) and Western Australia (20%) had the lowest levels of childlessness in 2000.

CURRENT CHILDLESSNESS OF FEMALES IN STATES AND TERRITORIES(a) - 2000

(a) Reliable data are not available for the Northern Territory.

Source: Births, Australia, 2000 (ABS cat. no. 3301.0).


Why people remain childless
A wide variety of reasons have been given by both men and women for the decision to remain childless. These range from lifestyle choices relating to the pursuit of education and a career, to a preference for a life without children.5 For some, the cost of raising children, in terms of both time and money, is a barrier, while for others, health concerns such as fear of passing on a genetic defect to a child are contributing factors.

Many forces compete with raising children, including difficulties of combining work with family and changing social values. The introduction of effective contraception in the 1960s and the wider availability of abortion gave women and couples greater choice about when and if to have children. That said, some childlessness continues to be involuntary.

Voluntary childlessness of a temporary nature may become involuntary in circumstances where women delay having children to a point where they are no longer able to conceive or carry a pregnancy to term. Overall, natural infertility occurs at a rate of about 7%,6 but this increases with age. Natural infertility is being offset to some extent by the increasing number of assisted pregnancies, which accounted for almost 2% of all births in 1999.7

Another more practical reason for involuntary childlessness for some people is not being married or in a stable relationship in which to have children. The importance placed on such relationships is shown by the fact that in 2000, 71% of births were to married women and 26% were exnuptial but had the father's name on the birth certificate.1 Declining marriage rates, high divorce rates and the temporary nature of some de facto relationships have thus contributed to the increasing prevalence of childlessness.2

Which women remain childless?
The proportion of women who remain childless varies according to such characteristics as educational attainment and cultural and religious background. These variations were apparent for women aged 45-49 years who had never had a child at the time of the 1996 Census. Participation in the labour force at age 45-49 years is relatively high for all women, with and without children. Since the impact of childlessness is more apparent at younger ages (20-44 years), when women take time out of the workforce to raise children, labour force participation for women in these age groups is discussed later in this section.

PROPORTION OF CHILDLESS FEMALES AGED 45-49 YEARS: HIGHEST POST-SCHOOL EDUCATION LEVEL ACHIEVED - 1996

Source: 1996 Census of Population and Housing.


In 1996, the proportion of women aged 45-49 years who were childless increased with level of educational attainment. The highest proportion of childless women was among those with a bachelor degree or higher (20%), compared with 12% of those with an undergraduate or associate diploma. Women with no post-school qualifications had the lowest level of childlessness (9%). This pattern is consistent with more highly educated women delaying child-bearing to concentrate on their education and career. Although some of these women may make an intentional choice to have no children, others may delay child-bearing to a point where they are no longer able to have a child.

The proportion of women who remain childless also varies according to their cultural background. In 1996, 11% of Australian-born women aged 45-49 years were childless. Of Australian residents born overseas, higher rates of childlessness existed among women in this age group who were born in the United States of America (24%), the Philippines (21%) and Malaysia (18%). Notably lower rates of childlessness existed among women who were born in Greece (4%), Croatia (5%) and Italy (6%). A lower proportion of Indigenous women aged 45-49 years were childless than non-Indigenous women in Australia (8% compared with 11%).

PROPORTION OF CHILDLESS FEMALES AGED 45-49 YEARS: SELECTED RELIGIOUS GROUPS - 1996

Source: 1996 Census of Population and Housing.


Different belief systems place different emphases on the place of marriage, the importance of family, the role of women in society and the acceptability of controlling fertility, all of which can affect levels of childlessness. In 1996, of women aged 45-49 years, Buddhist women and women with no religion had the highest levels of childlessness (17% and 16% respectively), while Islamic women had the lowest level (6%). About 10% of both Catholic and Anglican women were childless, close to the Australian average.

Across all age groups, participation in the labour force was notably higher for women who were childless than for women who had one or more children. In 1996, 80% of women aged 20-44 years who had not yet had a child were employed compared with 56% of those with children.

SELECTED COUNTRIES OF BIRTH OF CHILDLESS FEMALES AGED 45-49 YEARS - 1996

Proportion of females who were childless

Country of birth
%
Greece
3.7
Croatia
5.2
Italy
5.7
Malta
6.0
Netherlands
8.8
India
9.9
Australia
10.6
United Kingdom
10.9
New Zealand
13.4
Viet Nam
15.4
Malaysia
17.8
Philippines
22.4
United States of America
24.1

Source: 1996 Census of Population and Housing.


Of those with no children, somewhat lower proportions of younger and older women were employed (76% of those aged 20-24 years and 77% of those aged 40-44 years) than those in the prime child-bearing years (85% of those aged 25-29 years and 84% of those aged 30-34 years). For women with one or more children, the proportion employed was higher in successive age groups, ranging from 27% of 20-24 year olds to 69% of 40-44 year olds. This reflects the growing independence of older children, but increasing financial needs of families.

There were variations in the proportion of women with and without children working full-time. Women with no children were more likely than those with children to work full-time (57% compared with 23% for those aged 20-44 years). The highest levels of full-time work were among women with no children aged 25-29 years and 30-34 years (66% and 64% respectively). For women with children the likelihood of working full-time increased with age, from 9% of 20-24 year olds to 33% of 40-44 year olds).

PROPORTION OF FEMALES AGED 20-44 WHO WERE EMPLOYED - 1996

Age group(years)

20-24
25-29
30-34
35-39
40-44
Total 20-44
%
%
%
%
%
%

Females with no children
    Employed(a)
75.5
85.1
83.7
80.6
77.3
80.1
      Working part-time
25.6
18.6
19.3
20.4
20.9
21.8
      Working full-time
48.6
65.5
63.5
59.4
55.5
57.2
Females with one or more children
    Employed(a)
27.0
41.6
51.2
61.2
68.9
56.2
      Working part-time
17.1
26.2
32.4
35.6
34.1
32.0
      Working full-time
9.0
14.3
17.7
24.3
33.4
23.0

(a) Includes women whose hours worked were not stated.

Source: 1996 Census of Population and Housing.


Childlessness and ageing
The increasing prevalence of childlessness has implications for the wellbeing of the elderly in the future. As Australia's population ages, increasing numbers of older people will have no children to help with care and support. When in good health, people with no children have more contact with friends and neighbours than people with children, but as health problems mount, the likelihood of social isolation can increase.8 Women are likely to be more affected because they tend to live longer than men.

At present, children are the main source of informal care for many older people. In 1998, 55% of people aged 65 years and over who were receiving informal assistance, received it from their sons and daughters.9 Without this support, there is likely to be a shift from reliance on informal to formal care, provided either privately or by the government.

Women aged 75 years and over with no children are more likely to be in hospitals or residential care than those with children. In 1996, 22% of women aged 75 years and over who were childless were living in hospitals, hostels, nursing homes and other non-private dwellings, compared with 14% of women who had children.

USUAL PLACE OF RESIDENCE, FEMALES AGED 75 YEARS AND OVER - 1996

Number of children ever born

None
1 or more
Total
%
%
%

Non-private dwellings
    Hospital
2.0
1.5
2.1
    Nursing home
8.2
5.1
8.0
    Accommodation for retired or aged (cared)
9.9
6.6
7.7
    Other non-private dwelling
2.3
0.8
1.0
    Total
22.3
14.0
18.9
Private dwellings
77.7
86.0
81.1

Source: 1996 Census of Population and Housing.


Endnotes
1 Australian Bureau of Statistics 2000, Births, Australia, 2000, cat. no. 3301.0, ABS, Canberra.

2 Qu, L., Weston, R. and Kilmartin, C. 2000, 'Effects of changing personal relationships on decisions about having children', Family Matters, Issue No. 57 Spring/ Summer 2000, pp. 14-19.

3 Australian Institute of Health and Welfare, (AIHW) 2001, Australia's Welfare 2001, AIHW, Canberra.

4 Weston, R., Stanton, D., Qu, L. and Soriano, G. 2001, 'Australian families in transition: some socio-demographic trends 1901-2001', Family Matters, Issue No. 60 Spring/ Summer 2001, pp. 13-23.

5 Weston, R. and Qu, L. 2001, 'Men's and women's reasons for not having children', Family Matters, Issue No. 58 Autumn 2001, pp. 10-15.

6 Peter McDonald, quoted in the Age Sunday 17th June 2001, Melbourne.

7 Hurst, T. and Lancaster, P. 2001, Assisted conception Australia and New Zealand 1999 and 2000. AIHW cat.no. PER 18. Sydney: AIHW National Perinatal Statistics Unit (Assisted Conception Series No. 6).

8 Rowland, D. T., 1998. 'Consequences of childlessness in later life', Australasian Journal on Ageing, vol. 17, no. 1, pp. 24-28.

9 Australian Bureau of Statistics 1998, Disability Ageing and Carers, Australia, 1998, cat. no. 4430.0, ABS, Canberra.



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