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Around one fifth of women are childless at age 45

ONS looks at changing childlessness and family size in England and Wales

The latest ONS release ‘Cohort Fertility’ explores statistics on childbearing among women in England and Wales. ONS has data on women’s fertility all the way back to women born in 1920, and the latest findings look at how childlessness and family sizes have changed. The results show that the level of childlessness is increasing; 1 in 9 women born in 1940 were childless, compared with 1 in 5 women born in 1967. Also completed family size is decreasing; women born in 1940 had an average of 2.36 children compared with 1.91 for women born in 1967.

Why are there more childless women today?

The end of childbearing years is considered to be age 45, and at this point we know how many women in a generation are childless. In recent years there has been an increase in women not having children at all. In 2012, around 1 in 5 women at the end of the childbearing years (born in 1967) in England and Wales had never had children, compared with their mother’s generation (born in 1940) where 1 in 9 never had children.

This rise in childlessness may be explained by a decline in women getting married, greater social acceptability of a childfree lifestyle, delaying having children until it’s biologically too late, or the perceived costs and benefits of childbearing versus work and leisure activities.

Figure 1: Childlessness among women at age 45 (completion of childbearing) and by the 30th birthday

Figure 1: Childlessness among women at age 45 (completion of childbearing) and by the 30th birthday

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Why are completed family sizes getting smaller?

Completed family size is the number of children a woman has had by the end of her childbearing years. Completed family size has declined over time for women born since the mid 1930s, but has stabilised recently. Women age 45 today (born in 1967) have an average completed family size of 1.91. However, their mothers’ generation (born 1940) had an average family size of 2.36 at the same age.

This decrease in family size is mainly due to rising levels of childlessness. The most common number of children for a woman in England and Wales to have is two, and this has been the case through all years data is available for; 37% of women age 45 today have had two children. A more recent development in family size is that childlessness is the second most common family type. 

In contrast, three children was the second most common family size for women born between 1930s and the early 60s, and a woman born in 1940 was more likely to have one, three or four or more children than none at all. As for larger families, 10% of women age 45 today have four or more children, whereas 18% of their mothers’ generation had four or more children.

Figure 2: Family size by year of birth of woman

Figure 2: Family size by year of birth of woman

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Why are more 30 year old women childless than those in their mothers’ generation?

By looking at how many live births women have had by age 30, we can see an increase in women delaying having children to older ages; this indicates how many may still be childless by age 45.  In recent years, more women have delayed having children and this may be due to a range of factors including:

  • increased participation in higher education,

  • delayed marriage and partnership formation,

  • establishing a career,

  • getting on the housing ladder,

  • and ensuring financial stability before starting a family.

By their 30th birthday, almost half of women born in 1982 were childless. In contrast, less than a third of their mothers’ generation (born 1955) were childless by their 30th birthday, and  just over a quarter of their grandmothers’ generation (born 1927) were childless by their 30th birthday. Their mothers’ and grandmothers' generations both had roughly the same number of children by their 30th birthday, 1.42 and 1.43 respectively. In contrast, the current generation had 1.02 children by their 30th birthday. These patterns can be seen in the infographic that accompanies this story.

Where can I get more information on childlessness and fertility patterns?

These statistics were compiled and analysed by the Demographic Analysis Unit in the Population Statistics Division at ONS using cohort fertility data. If you’d like to find more detailed tables showing the proportion of women who have a birth by each age, for women born 1920 onward, please see the full report and see further stories on population. If you have any comments or suggestions, we’d like to hear them! Please email fertility@ons.gsi.gov.uk  

Categories: Population, Births and Fertility, Live Births and Stillbirths, Conception and Fertility Rates, Live Births, Fertility, Average Family Size, Age-specific Fertility Rates
Content from the Office for National Statistics.
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