Number of childless American women in their 40s has risen sharply since 1970s

By Donna St. George
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, June 25, 2010; A03

Nearly one in five American women in her early 40s is childless, according to a report that shows a striking increase in women who don't have biological children.

The trend was much less common in the 1970s, when one in 10 women did not have children by 40 to 44, the age bracket researchers use to designate the end of childbearing years.

The report, released Friday by the Pew Research Center, cites social and cultural shifts behind the change, including less pressure to have children, better contraceptive measures and expanded job opportunities for women.

"I certainly think it's notable that there is such a large increase in the share of women who do not have children for whatever reasons," said D'Vera Cohn, a coauthor of the study. She said that some women were childless by choice; others wanted children but could not have them. A "very, very small number" would go on to have children, she said.

"The fact that nearly one of five women does not have a child of her own -- that's an enormous transformation from the past," Cohn said.

Although the trend largely held true across races, ethnicities and education levels, one exception was among women with advanced degrees -- a master's or higher -- who were more likely to give birth. In 1994, 31 percent were childless in their 40s. In 2008, 24 percent were.

This may reflect a growing belief that women can have both a career and a family, said Tanya Koropeckyj-Cox, a sociologist at the University of Florida. She that in the 1990s, "it was more difficult to try to do both, and now there is a cultural shift that has made it more feasible to have a career while still also having a family."

She also said that professional women often have more resources to take advantage of infertility treatments.

The Pew report shows that the shift was opposite for women with less than a high school diploma. In 1994, 9 percent of that group was childless. In 2008, that figure was 15 percent -- an increase of 66 percent, says the report, which notes general trends in delaying marriage and childbearing.

Overall, the report found that white women are more likely to be childless, as are women with more education. The analysis, based largely on census data, comes amid changing attitudes about women who do not have children.

In 1988, 39 percent of those interviewed as part of the General Social Survey said they didn't think people without children "lead empty lives." By 2002, that figure was 59 percent.

The number of women without biological children is much larger than it once was, with 1.9 million childless women in 2008, compared with 580,000 in 1976.

The Pew study explored biological childbearing and did not touch on whether women had adopted children or stepchildren.

Childless women are as happy as women who had children at typical ages, said Amy Pienta, a researcher at the University of Michigan who coauthored a study on the subject. "They are not any more depressed; their psychological well-being is just as high," she said.

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