3101.0 - Australian Demographic Statistics, Sep 1999  
ARCHIVED ISSUE Released at 11:30 AM (CANBERRA TIME) 24/02/1999   
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Lifetime Childlessness (Sep, 1999)

This article was published in Australian Demographic Statistics, September Quarter 1999 (ABS Catalogue number 3101.0).

Natural increase (births minus deaths) contributed just over half the growth in Australia's population during the financial year 1998-99. Hence, births are an important component of population growth. From 1976 Australia has had below replacement level fertility, that is, the number of births required to replace a woman and her partner (currently 2.1). Australia's total fertility rate in 1998 was 1.8 babies per woman, falling from a century high of 3.6 in 1961. Together with the timing of births and a decline in the higher (3+) order of births, it would seem that childlessness of women may be contributing to current low fertility levels in Australia.

The proportion of Australian women who were childless at the end of their reproductive life has changed over time, from between an estimated 20% (1996 Census) to 30% (Rowland 1998) of women born at the beginning of the century, to 11% of women born at the beginning of the 1950s. For women born more recently childlessness appears to be on the rise and on current rates is expected to reach 28%. Childlessness of women may be influenced by factors such as cultural background, educational level, and labour force participation.


Based on the 1996 Census enumeration, 20% of women who were born in the year of Federation were childless. This figure is based on women who had survived to the 1996 Census, a select group who were aged 95 years at the time. Data from the 1981 and 1986 Censuses indicates a similar level of childlessness for women born in 1901.

Information on all women aged 45 years and over from the 1996 Census, suggests that the lifetime childlessness decreased consistently, to a low of around 9% for women born in the early to late 1930s. These women experienced their reproductive life in the post-World War II baby boom. The rates of childlessness for women born since 1943 have increased consistently, and of women born in 1951, who were aged 45 years at the time of the 1996 Census, 11% were childless.


The high level of childlessness among those born in the early twentieth century is believed to be related to childlessness within marriage associated with avoidance of childbearing during the Great Depression, and family disruption due to the Second World War. Rates of childlessness were reduced among women who were in their reproductive years during a period of fifteen to twenty years after the Second World War. During this 'baby boom' period the proportion of women having children increased (Rowland 1998).


While Censuses can provide information on lifetime childlessness of women who began their reproductive life 30 years ago or more, lifetime childlessness among women who are younger can only be estimated. Women who are entering and passing through their reproductive years in the 1990s are being influenced by different social values and economic conditions, and thus their completed fertility may be substantially different.

Current levels of childlessness can be estimated (based on fertility of all women currently in the childbearing ages) by calculating how many women will have a first birth. Based on the 1996 Midwives Collection 72% of all women will have a first birth, therefore implying that 28% of women will not have children.


Involuntary childlessness

Involuntary childlessness mainly occurs in two ways. Firstly a woman, or her partner, may be infertile. It is estimated that around five to eight percent of couples in the developed world are unable to have children (cited in Webb and Holman 1992). However this can be overcome through adoption, or increasingly, through modern interventionist methods such as in-vitro fertilisation (Stephen 1999:2). Not being in a registered marriage may be another reason for involuntary childlessness. In Australia this reason was more important in the past than currently, with 29% of births in 1998 being ex-nuptial.

Voluntary childlessness

Voluntary childlessness can stem from a number of reasons. Baum (1994) identified from her studies four main categories of reasons given by women for their state of voluntary childlessness:
Hedonists - women who choose to remain childless through a desire to preserve their standard of living and who are unwilling to invest either their time or money in raising children.
Emotional - women who do not have emotional feelings for babies or children.
Idealistic - women who do not want to bring a child into a world they feel is unsuitable, or who do not want to contribute to overpopulation.

Practical - women who have a practical reason for being childless, such as desire to pursue their career, or a fear of passing on a genetic defect to their child.

Voluntary childlessness of a temporary nature may involuntarily become a permanent state. For example, women who delay their childbearing may find themselves unable, at a later age, to conceive or carry a pregnancy to term. Using data on the 1965 marriage cohort in Germany, Schwarz (cited in Rowland 1998) calculated that 'almost all couples who have remained childless for about 10 years will remain childless for ever'.


The childlessness may be influenced by both cultural and social factors, such as country of birth, Indigenous origin, religious affiliation and educational attainment.
Country of birth - While childlessness among Australian-born women, aged 45 years at the 1996 Census, was 11%, it was higher for women born in Japan (28%), Thailand (27%) and the United States of America (25%) and lower for women born in Portugal (3%) and Turkey, Greece, Taiwan and Croatia (4% each).
Indigenous women - Childlessness was three percentage points lower (8%) for Indigenous women than for their non-Indigenous counterparts.

Religious affiliation - Women recorded as having no religious affiliation showed the highest level of childlessness (16%); women of Islamic faith had the lowest (5%).

Educational attainment - Women attaining an undergraduate degree or higher level qualification were most likely to be childless (20%). For women who had no tertiary qualifications the proportion was 9%.


For further information and analysis on childlessness and births in general see Births, Australia, 1998 (Cat. no. 3301.0) released on 16 November 1999.


Baum, F. 1994, Choosing not to have children, Vol.2, No. 3, 22-25.

Rowland D. 1998,
Cross-national Trends in Childlessness, Working Papers in Demography, No. 73, Australian National University Research School of Social Sciences.

Stephen E. 1999,
Assisted Reproductive Technologies: Is the Price Too High?, Population Today, Vol. 27, No. 5, 1-8.

Webb S. and Holman D. 1992,
A survey of infertility, surgical sterility and associated reproductive disability in Perth, Western Australia, Australian Journal of Public Health, Vol. 16, No. 4, 376-382.