Researchers at Michigan State University have reconfirmed in a recent study that about one in five adults in Michigan, equivalent to over 1.6 million individuals, consciously choose not to have children. This finding, aligning closely with an earlier estimate, suggests a significant portion of the population is opting for a child-free lifestyle.
The initial revelation last summer that nearly 1.7 million Michigan adults were child-free had surprised many. Now, this data has been validated in a follow-up study published in PLOS ONE, shedding more light on this societal shift.
Understanding why people choose to live without children has become an increasingly important area of study. Historically, most adults have had children, either by choice or circumstance. However, in recent decades, a growing number of individuals are choosing a childfree life. This shift prompted researchers to explore the reasons behind this decision, how these individuals differ from parents and other non-parents, and how they are perceived in society.
“There’s been a lot of talk about declining fertility rates in the United States and around the world. At the same time, more people have been open about their choice not to have kids. We wanted to understand these childfree people better especially since they are still not commonly included in academic research,” explained study author Jennifer Watling Neal, a professor of psychology at Michigan State University.
“There are some good qualitative studies of childfree people’s experiences but far fewer quantitative studies with large representative samples. In particular, a lot of larger representative studies have lumped childfree adults in with other types of non-parents including people who are planning to have kids in the future and people who wanted kids but could not have them due to medical or social circumstances.”
The study, conducted by the Institute for Public Policy and Social Research at Michigan State University, involved a comprehensive survey of 1,000 adults from Michigan. The survey participants were carefully chosen to represent the state’s adult population in terms of gender, age, race, and education level. The data collection took place in April 2022, ensuring that the findings were current and relevant.
“By asking a series of questions about whether people have or want children, we are able to distinguish several categories of adults, including parents, not-yet-parents, and childfree people,” Neal explained. “What makes our work unique is that we focus on whether people want children, not on whether they can have children. This allows us to distinguish childfree people who don’t want children, from childless people who want children but can’t have them.”
The researchers found that 20.94% of the adult population in Michigan identify as childfree, meaning they do not have and do not want biological, step, or adopted children. This group is second in size only to parents, who make up 52.79% of the population. Other groups, such as those planning to have children in the future, undecided about having children, or wishing they could have children but couldn’t, were significantly smaller.
“In our initial research, we found that more than one-in-five adults in Michigan don’t want children or are childfree,” Neal told PsyPost. “That was a surprisingly large number, so we wanted to verify it. In this new paper, we repeated the study with a new sample, and found the same thing: more than one-in-five adults in Michigan don’t want children.”
Moreover, the study examined the prevalence of childfree adults in various demographic groups. It found that men are more likely to be childfree than women, and white adults more so than non-white adults. Also, adults who have always been single and those identifying as LGBTQIA are more likely to be childfree. But the prevalence of childfree adults did not significantly differ by age, education, or income
“In many ways, childfree adults look the same as other adults. In our most recent work, we found no differences in the prevalence of childfree adults by age, education, or income,” Neals said.
The study also explored when childfree individuals made their decision. It found that most made this choice during their prime childbearing years – in their teens or twenties. This challenges the common belief that being childfree is a decision made later in life.
A prevalent belief regarding the child-free choice is the potential for regret later in life. The study, however, found no substantial evidence to support this. Older child-free adults do not experience more life regret than older parents. In fact, the study indicates that older parents might have slightly more desire to change aspects of their lives than their child-free counterparts.
“Childfree people, especially women, are often told they’ll be dissatisfied with life or regret their decision later,” Neal told PsyPost. “In this study, we compared how much adults age 70 and older said they’d want to change something about their life — in other words, whether they had any regrets about how their life had gone. We didn’t see any difference between childfree people and parents. This suggests that childfree people are similar to others in terms of life satisfaction and often don’t regret their decision later.”
Finally, the study also explored interpersonal warmth – how people feel about childfree individuals compared to parents. It was found that parents generally felt warmer towards other parents than towards childfree adults. This finding is indicative of an in-group favoritism that exists among parents.
While the study offers important insights, it is not without limitations. The focus on Michigan means these findings may not be directly applicable to other regions or countries. The cross-sectional nature of the data limits the understanding of how attitudes and decisions might evolve over time. Future research could benefit from a longitudinal approach, tracking changes in attitudes and decisions among childfree individuals over an extended period.
“Our study focused just on adults in Michigan so future work is needed to see if the prevalence of childfree adults would generalize nationally,” Neal said. “However, Michigan’s population is similar to the general US population in terms of age, race, education, income, and politics. So, we believe our findings may apply more broadly.”
The study, “Prevalence, age of decision, and interpersonal warmth judgements of childfree adults: Replication and extensions“, was authored by Jennifer Watling Neal and Zachary P. Neal.