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Back in February of this year I blogged about a report discussing the childlessness rate of European women. In short, the European rate has been climbing since the low of about 10% of the female population not having children who were born around War World Two, to around two-thirds the rate it was at the beginning of the century (around 15% compared to 25% for those women born in 1900). Thus, for example, in England and Wales 9% of the women born in 1946 have no children. For those born in 1970, that number is17%. 

The Economist recently wrote an interesting piece about this, showing that there was no correlation between the number of childless women in a country and that country’s overall total fertility rate. While Germany had a high childless rate (22% of women) and a low fertility rate (around 1.5 children per woman), Russia also had a low fertility rate (1.6) and low childless rate (less than 10%). While Ireland had a high childless rate (near 20%) and a relatively high fertility rate (nearly 2.2), Norway had a fertility rate of nearly 2.1 and childless rate of less than 12%.

So childlessness does not necessarily equate with dire demographic numbers or a sub-replacement birthrate. Indeed, as the Economist notes, a number of European countries had higher childlessness rates in the early 20th century such that “the baby-filled late 20th century looks like a blip”. The difference back then, of course, was that those women who had children tended to have more than 2, and thus the overall fertility rate of European nations was high.

The reasons behind childlessness are many and varied. A few women have never wanted children. Some fall in love with men who already have children and feel satisfied. Others suffer medical issues that mean they cannot fall pregnant. But a great many are “perpetual postponers” a group named by Ann Berrington, a demographer at the University of Southampton. These women wait to finish their education, have a stable job and house and then find it is too late biologically to have children.

Those who don’t have children are most likely to be the most educated women. And while women who end up childless have generally prioritised education or work in their 20s and 30s, men are more likely to remain childless because of their lack of education and work – they are not viewed as good father material and have a problem finding partners. Having said that, in western Germany, less educated women are converging with their highly educated peers in the childless rates while in Finland the switch has already occurred: women with only a basic education are the most likely to remain childless.

If a large number of women who are childless in Europe do not plan it, but find that work and education has taken up the years in which they are able to conceive a child, is it not time to make sure that men and women are more aware of biological imperatives? While we all get career planning advice at school and university, how often is that advice tailored to fit in a family? Indeed, how often is a family mentioned at all? Have we lost something in our culture when we postpone a family to have it all, and miss out on one of life’s most important things?