The Choice to be Childfree: An Increasing Factor in U.S. Population Growth

A recent article in HuffPost Women discussed the increasing number of American women who are opting out of motherhood.  Titled Childfree by Choice:  How Women are Redefining Tomorrow’s Family, the piece took a pro-feminist position on the trend – as educational and employment opportunities for women improve, they are freer from the social expectation of maternity than any previous generation.  With such expanding possibilities for the future, a rising number of women are actively choosing not to have children.

The implications of this trend for lower fertility directly affect our nation’s population growth.  With fewer children born, our overall growth rate through natural increase has an opportunity to slow – a definite positive for those concerned with reducing America’s population size.  However, this is a giant shift in our culture norms in a very short period of time.  It seems that Americans – at least when it comes to family size – may be starting to realize that “grow, baby, grow!” isn’t the answer.

In the 1970s – just four decades ago – 90% of American women had at least one child during her traditional child-bearing years.  And in 1976, the average woman had more than 3 children during her lifetime.  Yet in 2012, the U.S. Census Bureau found that 16.8% of women aged 45-50 (statistically considered the “post-child-bearing” bracket) had never given birth, representing a 68% increase since the 1970s.  Also notable was the high percentage of women aged 25-34 who also had not yet given birth:  49.4% of 25-29 year olds, and 28.2% of 30-34 year olds.

The trend appears to be clear:  American women are delaying the birth of their first child, they are having fewer children overall, and many are going childless for their lifetime.  Why such a shift in what has historically been such an engrained part of American society?

A simple Internet search of the term “childfree” produces a surprisingly vast number of results.  News articles, data and statistics, psychological analyses, and government studies are widely available.  So are a large number of public forums – Facebook pages, Meetup groups, even a fairly controversial sub-forum on the popular website Reddit – all designed to support those who are living the childfree lifestyle by choice.  It’s gaining rapid popularity among the millennial generation, and seems to be a direct result of the increase in women’s access to higher education and improved employment opportunities.

As we have seen in the U.S. and in countries around the world, when women are granted full access to education – and are able to procure a stable, well-paying position – the overall national fertility rate declines, and women’s quality of life rises.  However, there is more to the issue of childlessness than the empowerment of women.  Men, of course, are equally responsible for – and have equal right to determine – the number of offspring they want in their family.  And there are many reasons to choose “going childless” than just professional pursuits.

It appears that, for some, it is simply a matter of personal choice and well-being.  According to The Telegraph, a recent university study found that “when people were asked to rate the quality of their relationship, those without children emerged as happier overall.”  The cover of an August 2013 issue of Time magazine was dedicated to the story “The Childfree Life:  When having it all means not having children.”  Some explain their choice as an obvious one:  “I just never wanted to be a parent.”

There is also a significant financial element attached to parenthood.  Recently, the U.S. Department of Agriculture projected that – not including college expensesparents will spend an average of $245,340 to raise one child born in 2013.  And while some economists are crying for higher birth and immigration rates to ease a pending economic disaster, many experts are speaking out that America’s declining birthrate doesn’t mean collapse.  Even lower fertility rates are present in other countries with strong economies.  Some people simply want to keep their expendable income rather than spend it on a family, and – if we consider Japan or some of the Scandinavian countries – it doesn’t seem that our Gross Domestic Product is necessarily doomed to shrink if there isn’t a new rush of births to create future consumers.

There is also an inherent ecological cost attached to having children.  Scientists are pointing out the serious environmental implication of having a child, and many citizens are deciding to not reproduce in an effort to limit their carbon footprints.  According to an Oregon State University study, the decision to have a child is 20 times more environmentally significant (in terms of carbon legacy and greenhouse gas impact) than any other environmentally-sensitive choice – including driving a fuel-efficient car, recycling, or using only environment-friendly technology.  Some consider their choice to go childless as their contribution to saving our planet.

Whether the motive is personal happiness, to pursue an education, securing a successful career, to prevent extensive financial responsibility, or protecting the environment, it seems clear:  the option to live life without children is a viable one, and it is rapidly growing in popularity.

Tracy Henke

Tracy Henke served as Deputy Director of NPG from 2012 to 2017, contributing to the structure and development of NPG’s publications programs. Acting as NPG’s principal editor and a contributing author – as well as a regular contact for the public and media, Tracy extensively researched U.S. population issues and worked to establish significant grassroots support for the NPG mission. She holds a degree in Leadership & Social Change from Virginia Tech, with a professional background in non-profit and program management.

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