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Men without children
Childless men are more numerous than childless women, and worse off
I’m recently back from a trip to Scandinavia, specifically Finland, Denmark and Norway. The issues of boys and men are top of mind for lots of scholars and policymakers in those countries; the Norwegian government has even established a Commission on Men’s Equity. (Watch out for the Commission’s report in March 2024). I was delighted to give a public address in Oslo, in partnership with the Commission, and attend a seminar with a number of scholars working on issues of boys and men, in education, employment, mental health and family life. Lots of great research, some of which you’re sure to hear about over the coming weeks.
The tone of the debate over there is refreshingly straightforward, with less of the culture war brittleness that can characterize the U.S. conversation on gender issues. This is, in part, because the Scandinavian countries have such a good track record on promoting gender equality on behalf of women. That reduces the level of suspicion that is aroused when they start to talk about boys and men: Nobody thinks the Norwegians hate women.
Finns without kids
In Helsinki I was told that Finnish men have a very highest rates of childlessness, maybe even the highest in the world. Global data looks hard to come by, but I was able to find a very good study of European countries which does indeed have Finland at the top of the table for childlessness among men. It also shows the gap between men and women in rates of childlessness, which is also very interesting:
The issue of childlessness among men is one that I plan to return to; I’m especially interested in the sex ratio. The nations with many more men than women without children are likely to be of particular concern. The nations with higher rates of childlessness include some of the most generous welfare societies in the world, too, which belies the idea that there’s an easy financial fix to falling fertility rates.
What about the U.S.? I’ve been noodling around some of the reports and some of the best data I can find is from this Census Bureau report, which uses the 2014 SIPP. It shows a childless rate of 24% among men aged 45-50, with no real differences by level of education:
One important difference between men and women of course is that men can father children much later in life, and in fact the share of childless men keeps dropping up the age range, down to 15.6% among men over the age of 60:
In China there’s a term for men who don’t reproduce (despite desiring to): guanggun or “empty branches”. The Chinese government is worried about them. But there’s also rising concern among policymakers about isolation and loneliness; see the recent declaration from the Surgeon General. It’s important to note in this regard that older adults living alone are also much more likely to be childless. This is especially true for men: more than one in three men living alone don’t have any children.
A different study, also drawing on the SIPP, focuses on older Americans, aged 55 and over, and finds similar patterns with rising rates of childlessness for both women and men (but higher rates for men).
Strikingly, the negative impact of entering older age without children seems to be more significant for men. Childless older women have higher net wealth than any other group, and considerably more than childless older men ($174,000 v. $133,000), and better self-reported health than other groups:
As the Census Bureau authors conclude:
There are also important distinctions between childless men and women. Childless older women appear to be in a more advantageous position than their male counterparts in later life; they have better self-rated health scores and higher personal net worth than childless men. Research on family life course trajectories, which looks at combined histories of partnerships and parenting roles occupied by an individual over their lifetime, suggests that these roles are more strongly linked to later-life health for men than for women.
I don’t yet know quite what to make of all of this. The debate about rising childlessness and falling fertility is a confusing one, with data and values getting mixed up. It’s especially hard to know how much these patterns are the result of positive preferences, unwanted failures or some ambiguous middle ground. There’s some evidence that men are less keen on having children than in the past. And gay men are much less likely to have children than lesbian women.
What I am certain of is that fertility, family and fatherhood are issues that go much deeper than a lot of the social science I normally focus on. We’re not talking here about earnings and college degrees, but flesh and blood, legacy and loneliness.
I know many very content people without children, among my closest friends and family. So I certainly don’t think children are somehow essential for a fulfilling or purposeful life. But the people I know are ones who took a clear, conscious decision. For every one of those there are likely many more who just don’t manage to find the right person or the right time to become a parent. That’s a very different thing. And it looks like it might be especially corrosive for men to end up on a bare branch of their family tree.