Childlessness has varied consequences through its effects on societies and on the lifestyles and life chances of individuals. The childless lifestyle enhances life satisfaction for some individuals, while diminishing it for others, for whom parenthood was a personal goal. For societies, childlessness is a factor in low birth rates and population decline, with which are associated diminishing labor force entries and rising proportions in older ages. Childlessness is therefore a consideration for policy makers, both because of its demographic impact and because of its effects on the lives of individuals. The latter become most apparent in the older ages, where childlessness means that family resources for support of the disabled or frail are less assured.
Studies of the advantages and disadvantages of childlessness in later life suggest that well-being is not necessarily dependent on children, because the childless can meet their expressive (emotional) needs through greater contact with other relatives, friends, and neighbors, as well as with organizations such as clubs and churches. However, the childless in poor health appear to have a higher risk of social isolation or of admission to aged care institutions (Bachrach 1980; Rowland 1998). This implies that the support networks of the childless elderly are less effective in providing instrumental (practical) support, at least when the need is continuing. Although the majority of the elderly do not necessarily see family care as the best alternative (Rempel 1985), without the prospect of periodic help from children, or their assistance as a last resort, the childless must be more reliant on formal services or institutional care.
Thus, as cohorts with high proportions childless reach the older ages, family-centered approaches to aged care become less effective. In the late twentieth century, many of the aged in industrialized countries had few close relatives, which brought to the fore questions about their access to support. The decline of childlessness among later cohorts is now reducing the prevalence of such problems. However, by the 2020s, similar concerns about the adequacy of personal resources will confront the 1950s cohorts, as childlessness continues to shape their destiny. The proportions childless are unlikely to fall below 10 percent in any of the more developed countries for which data are available. Indeed, Catherine Hakim (2001, p. 51) forecasts "a stable plateau in most rich modern societies" of 20 percent childless.
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D. T. ROWLAND