A Quarter of Adults Don’t Want Children—and They’re Just As Happy

Couple laying on the couch

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Key Takeaways

  • Fewer people are having children either by choice or due to circumstance.
  • A recent study found that life satisfaction of people who choose not to have children is no different from parents or people who are childless for other reasons.
  • Choosing not to have children is much more common now as adults follow different life paths than the traditional family structure.

Having a child is often thought of as an important milestone in an adult's life. Many adults assume this as the natural progression, and those who have children of their own often look at child-free individuals as if they're missing out.

But the reality is that fewer people are having babies for reasons that vary from health circumstances, financial reasons, concern about the future of the planet or simply having other priorities, according to a poll from the New York Times.

Regardless of the reason, more adults are making this choice each year. So, a recent study from Michigan State University set out to gauge how these individuals feel about life after making that decision.

"There’s been a lot of talk recently about declining fertility rates in the United States and around the world, and at the same time, more and more people are being open about their choice not to have kids," says one of the study's researchers, Jennifer Watling Neal, PhD. "We really wanted to understand these child-free people a little bit better."

The Research

While past research has measured life satisfaction among adults without children, this study is the first to disentangle individuals who choose not to have children from those who wish to be parents in the future or those who perhaps aren't able to have children due to fertility issues or other circumstances.

For this particular study, researchers analyzed data from a representative sample of almost 1,000 adults. Participants were presented a survey containing three questions asking whether they have or ever have had biological or adopted children, whether they plan to have or adopt a child in the future and whether they wish they had or could have biological or adopted children.

These questions are significant in that they establish the contexts of different non-parent circumstances. Additionally, participants were asked to rate their life satisfaction and feelings toward child-free individuals and answer questions about their political ideology and personality traits.

Jennifer Watling Neal, PhD

People are equally satisfied with life regardless of their reproductive choices, and that makes sense that people are making the decisions that are right for them.

— Jennifer Watling Neal, PhD

The findings, published in PLOS ONE, showed no difference in life satisfaction and little difference in personality traits between child-free adults, parents and other types of non-parents. Child-free individuals, however, were found to be more liberal than parents and other types of non-parents.

The most surprising finding, though, was the number of individuals that identify as child-free at 27% of the sample. Previous studies have estimated this number between 2–9%, Watling Neal says.

“People are equally satisfied with life regardless of their reproductive choices, and that makes sense that people are making the decisions that are right for them,” she says.

Sheenie Ambardar, MD

Having children has been the expected norm for thousands of years—essentially all of human history. It is ingrained in our collective consciousness as something that you just do, kind of like on auto-pilot.

— Sheenie Ambardar, MD

Child-Free Psychology

Over the years, psychiatrist Sheenie Ambardar, MD, has helped several patients process their thoughts and emotions around being child-free. Despite the fact that fewer people are having children globally, there's still some stigma around choosing against starting a family. Some people—women, especially—have a difficult time grasping that the freedom now exists to choose something different, she notes.

"This may be frightening or disconcerting for traditionalists," Ambardar says. "Children do bring joy, but so do a lot of other things. Those other things weren't available to women in the past but they are now."

While the U.S. birthrate fell to an all-time low in 2020, only within the last 50 years or so have women's lives consistently pushed past the boundaries of the home and family. And with that push, opting out of parenthood has continued to gain popularity. Ambardar points to the acceptance of choice as the biggest generational difference.

"Having children has been the expected norm for thousands of years—essentially all of human history," Ambardar says. "It is ingrained in our collective consciousness as something that you just do, kind of like on auto-pilot."

Shifting away from this can be difficult, as child-free life still carries stigma and is often viewed with confusion. In fact, the study found that while child-free individuals felt no less warm toward parents or other non-parents, the latter felt significantly less warm toward child-free individuals.

Sheenie Ambardar, PhD

If your gut is telling you that you don't want children, there is probably a good reason.

— Sheenie Ambardar, PhD

Lacking the urge to have children does not indicate a flaw. It's completely normal that some people, both men and women, won't desire children in their lifetime, Ambardar says. Even if this life choice is still viewed as unconventional in society, it's important that people who are contemplating a child-free life avoid conforming just to fit in.

"I would gently advise anyone who feels guilt or shame for not wanting children to follow their hearts and listen to their inner intuition," Ambardar says. "Your intuition won't steer you wrong. If your gut is telling you that you don't want children, there is probably a good reason. Maybe your heart has another vision for your life. It would be unfair to you to not follow your heart and desires."

What This Means For You

Research shows that child-free individuals are no less happy than adults who have children. Making important life decisions sometimes requires ignoring external pressures while keeping your own desires and best interests in mind.

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3 Sources
Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. New York Times. Americans are having fewer babies. They told us why. Published July 5, 2018.

  2. Watling Neal J, Neal ZP. Prevalence and characteristics of childfree adults in Michigan (USA). PLoS ONE. 2021;16(6):e0252528. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0252528

  3. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Births: provisional data for 2020. Update May 3, 2021.