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Jürgen Dorbritz (2005)

Childlessness in Germany and Europe – Data, Trends and Attitudes*

In: Zeitschrift für Bevölkerungswissenschaft, Vol. 30, 4/2005, p. 359-408, Wiesbaden: VS Verlag für Sozialwissenschaften, ISSN: 0340-2398

The share of childless women in Germany is not known with any precision, and the topic is generally underresearched. There are gaps in our knowledge concerning the paths to childlessness, as to the proportions of desired and undesired childlessness, and when it comes to the possibilities available under family policy to reduce childlessness. This article is hence intended to provide a comparison of the extent of childlessness in Germany and Europe, to investigate the question of who are the childless and to reveal their attitudes towards marriage and family.

Analyses using various datasets from official statistics, the Microcensus and sociological surveys confirm that, at least in western Germany, childlessness is on the way to reaching, or indeed already has reached, the 30 % mark among those born in the second half of the 1960s. There is now talk in this context of a culture of childlessness. If it is not reduced, childlessness could cause fertility to fall even further in Germany. However, there are also lower estimates for western Germany. The much lower level of childlessness in the new federal Länder should be noted when comparing western and eastern Germany. The high number of childless female academics is repeatedly mentioned in the debate on childlessness in western Germany. The analyses that have been carried out permit one to draw the conclusion that this appears to be an overestimate. Childlessness in excess of 40 % is not to be expected, if at all, until one reaches the birth cohorts from 1966. It is however quite possible, since first births can still take place, that none of these birth cohorts will reach this kind of value.

Childlessness on the scale observed in western Germany is found elsewhere in Europe only in Switzerland. A marked increase could also apply to those born in some eastern European countries after 1970 (the data are insecure as there are large estimated shares here). The trend is for an increase in childlessness to be observed in Europe. Dimensions and trends differ greatly, however. Magnitudes close to 30 % in some countries are compared with less than 10 % of childless women in others (e.g. Portugal). Upward trends came about relatively early in western and northern Europe, whilst they are a new phenomenon for southern Europe and the formerly Socialist countries. The various dimensions of childlessness have led to differentiated European fertility patterns. The birth cohort 1935 still demonstrated a standard pattern, with high final numbers of children and low levels of childlessness. In the birth cohort 1965, it is possible to find a variety of patterns linking the final number of children and shares of childless women, for instance the western German pattern with high childlessness and a low final number of children, or the Irish pattern with a relatively high level of childlessness and yet very high final numbers of children. The trend however is that the higher the level of childlessness, the lower the final number of children.

The specific opinions and attitudes of the childless towards the reasons against fulfilling desired fertility, and their attitudes towards marriage, family and children, (here: no children, no desired fertility) are noticeable in the sociological data analysis that was carried out using the Population Policy Acceptance Study. According to these results, a group has developed among the population which because of its individualistic orientations does not want to have children (e.g. one can no longer enjoy life in the same way with children). Family-policy measures are of slighter significance for this group, so that one may presume that the decision against children is well established, and hence family policy will be virtually unable to bring about a change in thinking.

* peer-reviewed article (original German title: Kinderlosigkeit in Deutschland und Europa – Daten, Trends und Einstellungen)

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