Traditional Western ideals often equate adulthood with parenthood, but a new study out of Michigan has found that’s not necessarily the case anymore.
More and more adults are explicitly choosing not to have children now more than ever, according to a study published in July on nature.com by two researchers from Michigan State University. These adults are being called “childfree,” and appear to make up a significant portion of the adult population in Michigan.
Researchers Zachary Neal and Jennifer Watling Neal say that previous studies conducted to determine the number of childfree adults used methods and data that appear to have led to significant undercounting of this population. That’s why the pair conducted a more nuanced study of the adult population in Michigan to get a better idea of how many people are choosing not to be parents, compared to those who are unable to, who are planning to be in the future, or who are unsure.
This story first appeared in our Data Drop Newsletter, through which we tell stories using data and facts.
While reviewing a 2018 survey of male and female adults in Michigan, the researchers placed survey participants into one of six categories:
- Parent: Adults with children who are biological, step and/or adopted
- Childfree: Adults explicitly choosing not to have children, regardless if they are able to or not
- Undecided: Adults who do not have children and don’t know if they plan to in the future
- Not-yet-parent: Adults who are not parents yet, but plan to be in the future
- Childless: Adults who do not have children, but wish they had or could have
- Ambivalent: Adults who do not have children, and have conflicted feelings about whether they want to or not
Below is a graphic showing how survey participants were categorized based on their “reproductive status.”
Findings: Population breakdown
The majority of Michigan adults, 49.62%, are parents, the study found. This statistic wasn’t necessarily surprising.
The number of childfree adults, however, was larger than expected. Researchers found that childfree adults made up the second largest demographic among adults in Michigan, representing 21.64% of the entire adult population.
That means more than one-fifth of the state’s adult population is explicitly choosing not to have children.
According to the Michigan State University researchers, other studies that analyzed fertility-based measurements -- i.e. examining whether someone could have a biological child vs. someone who couldn’t -- estimated that about 2.2%-9% of adults in the U.S. were childless, and therefore childfree. But the latest researchers say that those terms are distinctly different, and that the old studies may have excluded infertile adults who do not want children, or may have ignored that the “prevalence of childfree adults has grown over time.”
“In either case, our findings suggest that a large proportion of the adult population do not have children and do not want them,” the study reads.
The other groups of Michigan adults without children were much smaller in numbers, researchers found.
Here’s how they’re broken down:
- 9.9% of Michigan adults were undecided
- 9.58% of Michigan adults were not-yet-parents
- 5.72% of Michigan adults were childless
- 3.55% of Michigan adults were ambivalent
Age of childfree decision
The study also examined the age at which a person made the decision to be childfree -- which turns out to be relatively young.
Researchers say that majority of childfree Michigan adults determined that they did not want to have children when they were between the ages of 10-19 years old (34.04%) or when they were in their 20s (31.84%). About 17.14% of childfree adults said they made the decision to not become a parent when they were in their 30s, and even fewer said they made the decision in their 40s or later.
Zachary and Jennifer Neal say that previous studies essentially place childfree adults into two categories: “early articulators” and “postponers.”
Early articulators are people who chose to be childfree when they were “quite young, often before marriage or partnership.” Postponers are childfree adults who may have planned to have children, but delayed doing so, and then later made the decision to remain childfree.
According to the Michigan study, most childfree adults in the state would be considered early articulators. And, based on the survey, many women who reported making the decision in their teens and 20s are now in their late 30s, indicating a persistent desire not to have children over nearly two decades.
“The large number of early articulators, together with women’s reported persistence in their decision not to have children, could point to changing norms toward parenthood and increasing recognition of the childfree choice as a viable alternative,” the study reads. “This is important because it suggests that when doctors greet ‘childfree women’s requests for sterilizations with hesitation (due to) fear that a woman will change her mind later,’ it is misinformed and paternalistic.”
Related reading: Census: Childless older women better off than older men
Researchers believe that more studies should be conducted on populations throughout the U.S. and the Western world to better understand the prevalence of childfree adults, and the seemingly shifting culture around explicitly choosing not to become a parent. Still, the study holds firm that the number of childfree adults is greater than previously estimated, and researchers believe that number may continue to grow.
“This study offers critical insights on childfree adults, who are a demographically significant segment of the population, but whose numbers have been substantially underestimated in the past,” the study reads. “ ... This means that many people may be at risk of ... negative outcomes experienced by childfree adults, including exclusion from work-life balance considerations, denial of medical care, and attribution of negative stereotypes. Clarifying the size of this population can not only direct attention toward reducing these negative outcomes, but also highlight for young adults that the decision not to have children is quite common.”
Previously from Data Drop: