The most incisive guide to issues facing the American family today . . . An invaluable resource for anyone wishing to stay on the cutting edge of research on family trends.

-W. Bradford Wilcox
Associate Professor of Sociology, University of Virginia 

Happiness in Old Age

Bryce J. Christensen and Robert W. Patterson

Most Americans look forward to retirement, but old age is often another story. Yet two studies published in theJournal of Family Issues, that explore relationships between childlessness and well-being in old age, reveal how matrimony and having children can make a difference. The studies also suggest that baby boomers may have more to fear as they grow older, as they report lower rates of marriage and higher rates of childlessness than their parents.

Drawing upon data from cross-sectional surveys of older persons conducted in seven industrial countries in the early 1990s, Tanya Koropeckyj-Cox and Vaughn Call found that adults who are childless—relative to their peers with children—are significantly more likely to end up in the least desirable circumstances: living alone or in an institutional setting. They find this pattern “strikingly similar” across all counties except Japan, where rates of childlessness are the lowest. In the United States, childless men are more than four times more likely to live alone than men who are fathers.

The researchers also found that childlessness is closely linked to the proportions in each country that never married. They found that between one-third and one-half of childless older adults have never married and that only between 6 and 7 percent of those who never marry report having children. Childless men, for example, were about half as likely to be married as fathers.

Confirming the link between childlessness and marriage, Donald Roland of the Australian National University chronicles how changing rates of childlessness throughout the twentieth century mirror changing marriage patterns. Using census data and large-scale surveys from Europe, Japan, Australia, and the U.S., Roland charts 1) an across-the-board peak in childlessness in women born between 1890 to 1910; 2) a remarkable drop in childlessness in birth cohorts from 1910 to 1945 that coincided with what he calls a “marriage revolution” involving earlier and more universal marriage; and 3) a steady rise in childlessness in birth cohorts since World War Two. In the United States, childlessness peaked at 25 percent among the women born between 1910–14; reached a low of 9 percent among those born between 1940–44; and rose again to about 17 among women born in the 1950s.

Rowland shows how the two periods of rising childlessness parallels a rising median age of first marriage. He writes: “Later ages at marriage bring a greater likelihood of low fecundity and, for some, a strengthened reluctance to have children.” Furthermore, he sees links between periods of rising childlessness and declining family size. Among twentieth century birth cohorts, not only do “the highest proportions of married women with only one child occur in the same birth cohorts that had the peak proportions childless,” but also “those with the lowest average family size had the highest proportions childless, whereas those with the largest families had the lowest proportions childless.”

Although neither study makes the point, their findings nonetheless confirm the wisdom of the Book of Proverbs equating the blessings of old age with a full quiver.

(Sources: Tanya Koropeckyj-Cox and Vaughn R. A. Call, “Characteristics of Childless Persons and Parents,” Journal of Family Issues 28 [October 2007]: 1362–1414, and Donald T. Rowland, “Historical Trends in Childlessness,” Journal of Family Issues 28 [October 2007]: 1311–37.)