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Trends, Explanations, Consequences

Childlessness is one aspect of the diversity inherent in contemporary experience of marriage and the family. With this greater diversity, once-common pressures for childbearing have given way to greater social acceptance of remaining single or married without children. Nonetheless, childlessness is a concern, partly because of its implications for the maintenance of societies and partly because of its unwanted consequences for individuals. Rising levels of childlessness are contributing to falling birth rates and strengthening prospects of prolonged population decline in many industrialized countries. For some people, conditions of employment can make it difficult to combine having children with the pursuit of an income or a vocation. A long-term consequence, in later life, is that the childless have fewer resources for family interaction and support.

In industrialized countries, childlessness was more prevalent at the start of the twentieth century than at the end of the twentieth century. It was, however, less conspicuous because it occurred in conjunction with a large family system: That some had four or more children partly offset the childlessness of others, keeping birth rates relatively high. In the present situation, and one reason why the effects of childlessness are now more apparent, is that smaller families are more prevalent, with pronounced preferences for two children; relatively few couples have four or more. Childlessness can now make the difference between maintaining population numbers and precipitating long-term decline.

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Marriage and Family EncyclopediaPregnancy & Parenthood