More childless U.S. adults say they’ll likely never have kids, survey finds

Pew Research Center says a growing share of adults don’t want to have kids — and some who have kids don’t want more

Having children is not an expectation or desire for a growing share of childless American adults, according to a new Pew Research Center report. And many who are already parents say they don’t plan to have more children.

Pew’s findings come amid news that the U.S. birthrate, which already hit a record low before the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, is continuing to fall. The decline in births worries many policymakers, demographers and others who say that a country needs children in order to secure a healthy future.

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In the survey, which was conducted in October, Pew found that about 44% of nonparents ages 18 to 49 deem it “not too likely” or “not at all likely” they’ll have kids, compared to 37% who said the same in 2018. And three-fourths of adults younger than 50 who have children said they are not likely to have more.

Childless men and women were about as likely to say they don’t plan on having any or more kids. However, younger adults were more likely than those in their 40s to see the possibility of children in their future, said the report’s author Anna Brown, a research associate focusing on social and demographic trends research at Pew Research Center.

While reasons vary, the top response from those who don’t plan to ever be parents is “I just don’t want to.” That response was given by 56% of childless adults who say having kids in not likely. Other commonly named factors, in descending order, were medical reasons, financial reasons, not having a partner, age and the state of the world.

Among those who gave other reasons — 5% — listed the environment and climate change, while 2% said their partner doesn’t want kids. Pew enabled each person to choose up to three different factors to explain why they probably wouldn’t have children. 

More than 6 in 10 parents who don’t plan to have more kids said that’s by choice. Other reasons included age, medical and financial reasons, the fact they already have kids, the state of the world, lack of a partner or having a partner who doesn’t want children. 

Brown said the Pew study found that, while men and women generally give pretty similar answers as to whether they thought they were apt to have children in the future and why or why not, fathers who said they probably wouldn’t have more children were more likely than mothers to say they really don’t want more kids. Mothers, on the other hand, were more likely to cite medicals reasons, she said. 

Among parents, the share who say they don’t expect to have more kids has not changed since 2018, she added.

The data is based on the research center’s nationally representative American Trends Panel, which, in late October, collected data in English or Spanish. The survey was administered by Ipsos and has a margin of error of plus or minus 1.6 percentage points.

Why fertility matters

Brown said it’s not clear what the implications of these findings might be. But a number of experts over the last year have drawn a stark picture of what could happen to the U.S. economy and Americans themselves if births become rarer over time.

With the U.S. birthrates already at the lowest ever point, Lyman Stone, demographer and Institute for Family Studies research fellow, spoke recently of “grave consequences for society, for economic growth, for the viability of generational transfers.” He noted, too, that women are not having the number of babies they say they’d like to have.

As the Deseret News reported earlier this year, many social policies were enacted during the growing-family era of the ’50s and ’60s, including Social Security, a program that bolsters the finances of older adults when they retire. That era’s robust family growth was almost twice what it is today, and contributed to economic growth, entrepreneurship and bustling schools and universities. Family growth even helped older adults buy homes and accumulate wealth that would go to their children.

Smaller generations are likely to mean smaller lifestyles. And working-age adults could find they’re the skinny end of an inverted pyramid, trying to support a larger generation that needs programs like Social Security and Medicare. 

Stone warned rich and poor could both feel the pinch of fewer births, since the stock market needs customers to buy products and services that boost the company’s value. And while many older Americans have wealth on paper in their home, that wealth doesn’t become real unless someone’s willing to buy it from them.

What other studies say

The American Enterprise Institute noted its version of the trend last summer in “The Divided State of Our Unions,” pointing out that not only are people having fewer babies — and fewer people having babies — but the share of “never-marrieds” is rising. 

The institute’s report suggests those most likely to get married and have children are the rich, the religious and Republicans.

The analysis, based on two new YouGov surveys conducted for the Wheatley Institution at Brigham Young University and the Institute for Family Studies, said that the desire to have children had nearly halved from what it was before the pandemic began, shrinking to 10%.

“What I see as the most interesting finding is the decline of interest in having children among lower-income Americans,” said Wendy Wang, research director at the Institute for Family Studies, of that study. “Traditionally, people with lower incomes tend to have more children, but the gap in fertility between the rich and poor has been narrowing in recent years. In our survey, we see the desire for children fell by 11 percentage points among lower-income Americans since COVID started, but stayed stable for higher-income Americans.”

In “More Work, Fewer Babies: What Does Workism Have to Do with Falling Fertility,” released earlier this year, Stone and Institute for Family Studies senior fellow Laurie DeRose of The Catholic University of America made the case that increasingly work-focused personal values “can also mean that many men and women find their preferred balance to be more work and less family.”

They found that a “meaningful career” aspect of employment predicted lower fertility, while valuing work because it provides a good standard of living did not. Stone said existing popular theories haven’t addressed why a personal identity tied into family would be less important than a work-focused identity.

Would policies help? 

As births decline, immigrants can “backfill,” Stone told the Deseret News. But that’s a limited help because, as more countries prosper, people stop leaving their homelands. And historically, having a large immigrant influx “tends to yield a negative backlash,” he said.

It may be more valuable for policymakers to focus on money-related solutions. Numerous studies show young parents cite financial reasons to explain why they likely won’t have more children. 

“A healthy society would be one where people who wanted to have kids could and they would feel confident about their ability to support those kids — and have social and economic infrastructure supports in general,” Pam S. Perlich, director of demographic research for the Kem C. Gardner Policy Institute at the University of Utah, said recently. 

Children tend to do best when their parents are together in a stable relationship, which studies suggest is more likely in marriage. Stone said tax code and safety net policies that penalize marriage make it harder for working-class Americans to have kids, though. “If you marry, you often lose benefits or pay more. That’s a problem,” he said.

The nationally representative 2021 American Family Survey, released in October by the Deseret News and BYU’s Center for the Study of Elections and Democracy, looked at whether policies that helped families could prompt couples to choose to be parents.

“Asked about a child benefit from the government, 17% of those in what’s broadly considered prime child-bearing years said it would increase their interest in having children,” the Deseret News reported at the time.  

Shawn Fremstad, a senior fellow at the Center for Economic Policy Research, who wasn’t part of that study, described a policy that gives families a per-child benefit as “basically a GI Bill for parents. In addition to providing concrete supports that will ease the time and money burdens that nearly all potential parents face, it sends a powerful message that raising children is valuable and essential work. If it doesn’t raise the U.S. birthrate, it’s hard to imagine any other set of policies that will.”

Adults ages 18 to 29 more than other groups said such a benefit would increase their desire to have a child. Men agreed more often than women. 

Brown said that Pew Research Center has a keen interest in fertility and family formation.

“We are definitely going to keep an eye on this trend,” she said.

Clarification: A previous version said 5% of respondents listed the environment and climate change as factors for not having children, and 2% said it was because their partner doesn’t want to have kids. The 5% and 2% figures refer to the survey respondents who mentioned other reasons not to have children and not all parents surveyed.