Across the world, birth rates are dropping. The global fertility rate has halved since 1950, with indications that this will continue to fall. There are a number of suggestions as to why this is the case: women may stay in education or the workforce rather than have multiple children, for instance, and many people across the world now have much greater access to contraception.
But many adults are also explicitly deciding not to have children, instead choosing to be “childfree”. The childfree movement has grown rapidly over the last few years: the ‘r/Childfree’ subreddit has over 1.4 million subscribers, whilst media coverage has proliferated in the UK and US.
But are the childfree missing out on the joys that come from parenthood? According to a new study published in PLOS One, that isn’t the case: childfree adults are just as satisfied with their lives as parents.
Participants, 1000 adults from Michigan in the United States, were either parents, childless (had no children but wanted them) or childfree (had no children and didn’t want them). They completed several scales, including measures of life satisfaction and of the Big Five personality traits, before rating on a scale from 0 to 100 how cold or warm they felt towards both women and men who do not ever want to have biological or adopted children. Finally, the team also collected demographic data, including information on participants’ race, gender, education, age, political ideology and relationship status — whether someone was partnered, formerly partnered (e.g. divorced, separated or widowed) or single.
Over a quarter of participants were childfree, the second biggest group after parents. At first, it appeared that childfree participants had lower life satisfaction than parents — but this difference disappeared after controlling for gender, education, age and relationship status.
Childfree participants were also more likely to be left-wing or liberal compared to parents. “Not yet parents” — those who did not have children yet but hoped to in the future — were slightly more agreeable than childfree participants, but there were no other differences in personality between the groups.
Warmness towards childfree women and men also depended on the parenting status of participants. Childfree people felt warmer towards childfree women and men while childless individuals and parents felt significantly colder.
A common refrain on forums such as r/Childfree is that many parents insinuate — or say outright — that their childfree counterparts couldn’t possibly be as happy as them. This research seems to suggest that isn’t the case. However, despite the fact that childfree adults are just as satisfied with their lives as parents, they are still considered by others to be an outgroup, with parents and childless individuals feeling significantly colder towards them than other childfree people.
Further research could look at the variety of reasons why people choose not to have children: in this study, personality didn’t seem to make much of a difference while political ideology did, so exploring the direction of this effect may be interesting. Whether it’s to do with finances, the environment, or gender roles, looking more closely at the political, economic and social factors that lead people to becoming childfree could give insight into the complex components of the decision to have — or not have — children.