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Family-friendly policies are unlikely to influence the voluntary childless

Most childless women are in middle and lower-level jobs rather than the glamorous professional and managerial stereotype of the careerist female, according to new research by Dr Catherine Hakim of the London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE), sponsored by the ESRC.

While half of all women in top jobs have no offspring, even after several marriages, they represent a tiny fraction of all those in the 20-50 age group, says the study on childlessness in Europe.

High levels of voluntary childlessness, with one in five women not giving birth, are a relatively new social phenomenon in the prosperous societies of western Europe. This project, which analysed data from all over Europe, North America and New Zealand, explored the causes and possible implications.

Family-friendly policies from employers or governments are unlikely to have any impact on those whose decision to be childfree is rooted in a personal lifestyle choice, argues the report. It notes that the percentage of women who remain childless has varied greatly across the 20th century, but was around the same level 100 years ago, for quite different reasons. Then, the causes were extreme poverty, poor nutrition, or low marriage rates at times of war or emigration.

That is a far cry from childlessness today, among healthy, sexually active women living in relative prosperity. According to the study, the decision not to have children is generally higher among men than women in all countries. For some men, raising children is seen as the price they pay for a good relationship with a woman they like. Despite the fact that childbearing usually has a bigger impact on women's lives, they are keener on having children, though they also seem to be most likely to regret it.

People set on a voluntary childfree lifestyle are still rare - fewer than ten per cent of 20-39-year-olds in modern societies. Exceptions are Belgium and Austria, where 14 per cent and ten per cent of men respectively do not want children. In Slovenia and Latvia, this falls to below one per cent for both sexes.

In Britain, only eight per cent chose childlessness at age 42, although the trend is upwards among younger people, with 12 per cent making this choice at 30.

The proportion of people uncertain about whether to have children varies more widely. Numbers range from none in Austria and one per cent in Belgium, to 11 per cent of women and 19 per cent of men in Germany, and five per cent of women and 18 per cent of men in Poland. In Britain, the study found 12 per cent of women and 21 per cent of men at age 42 uncertain or with mixed feelings on the subject. However, at 30, one-third of women and almost half of men were undecided.

The study also discovered that 12 per cent of the women and six per cent of men among the 42-year-olds were reluctant or regretful parents.

Dr Hakim said: 'Primary infertility affects just two to three per cent of women, so cannot explain why around 20 per cent overall do not give birth in modern societies. The fact that that there are more people uncertain about having children than with clear-cut views, suggests that childbearing is now very susceptible to factors such as whether people get married, and to the social, economic and policy environment.'

Ends

For further information, contact:

  • Dr Catherine Hakim, LSE, on 020 7955 6655, email: c.hakim@lse.ac.uk
  • Or Iain Stewart, Lesley Lilley or Becky Gammon at ESRC, on 01793 413032/413119/413122.

Notes for editors:

The research report Childlessness in Europe was funded by the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC). Dr Hakim is at the Department of Sociology, LSE.

The ESRC is the UK's largest funding agency for research and postgraduate training relating to social and economic issues. It provides independent, high-quality, relevant research to business, the public sector and Government. The ESRC invests more than £76 million every year in social science and at any time is supporting some 2,000 researchers in academic institutions and research policy institutes. It also funds postgraduate training within the social sciences to nurture the researchers of tomorrow. More at http://www.esrc.ac.uk|

REGARD is the ESRC's database of research. It provides a key source of information on ESRC social science research awards and all associated publications and products.

19 January 2004

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