Ageing Without Children




We have put together a paper designed to give a brief overview and summary of evidence produced on issues pertaining to ageing without children. It lists relevant research papers, sets ageing without children within the context of UK policy, highlights the key issues that can be drawn from the research to date and suggests how these will impact on health and social care.

Evidence on ageing without children

Below are further links to research about ageing without children

Intergenerational flows of support between parents and adult children in Britain


Understanding patterns of intergenerational support is critical within the context of demographic change, such as changing family structures and population ageing. Existing research has focused on intergenerational support at a given time in the individuals’ lifecourse, e.g. from adult children towards older parents and vice versa; however, few studies have focused on the dynamic nature of such support. Analysing data from the 1958 National Child Development Study, this paper investigates the extent to which the receipt of parental help earlier in the lifecourse affects the chances of adult children reciprocating with support towards their parents later in life. The findings show that three-quarters of mid-life adults had received some support from their parents earlier in life, and at age 50 more than half were providing care to their parents. Patterns of support received and provided across the lifecourse differ markedly by gender, with sons being more likely to have received help with finances earlier in the lifecourse, and daughters with child care. The results highlight that care provision towards parents was associated with support receipt earlier in life. However, the degree of reciprocity varies according to the type of care provided by children. Such findings have implications for informal care provision by adult children towards future cohorts of older people, and by extension, the organisation of social care.

The childless are not a homogeneous group

“If one focuses on the current political or academic debate on childlessness (and childless people)  s/he might assume that the entire population can be easily divided into two mutually exclusive groups: the childless and parents. After reading a number of articles on the “consequences” (in fact, correlates) of childlessness, the reader will also easily assume that not having children is clearly associated with a number of (generally negative) socio and economic conditions – such as a worse health status, social isolation etc. What I want to argue here is that one basic fallacy of this type of reasoning is that it assumes that childless people and parens are homogenous groups. This is not correct”

Link to full paper

A growing care gap? The supply of unpaid care for older people by their adult children in England to 2032 Pickard L 2013

“A key feature of population ageing in Europe and other more economically developed countries is the projected unprecedented rise in need for long-term care in the next two decades. There is, however, considerable uncertainty over the future supply of unpaid care for older people by their adult children. The future of family care is particularly important in countries planning to reform their long-term care systems, as is the case in England. This article makes new projections of the supply of intense unpaid care for parents aged 65 and over in England to 2032, and compares these projections with existing projections of demand for unpaid care by older people with disabilities from their children. The results show that the supply of unpaid care to older people with disabilities by their adult children in England is unlikely to keep pace with demand in future. By 2032, there is projected to be a shortfall of 160,000 care-givers in England. Demand for unpaid care will begin to exceed supply by 2017 and the unpaid ‘care gap’ will grow rapidly from then onwards. The article concludes by examining how far this unpaid ‘care gap’ is likely to be met by other sources of unpaid care or by developments in new technology and examines the implications of the findings for long-term care policy”

Payback time? Influence of having children on mortality in old age Modig K et al 2016

“Background It is known that parents have lower mortality than childless individuals. Support from adult children to ageing parents may be of importance for parental health and longevity. The aim of this study was to estimate the association between having a child and the risk of death, and to examine whether the association increased at older ages when health starts to deteriorate and the need of support from a family member increases.

Methods In this nationwide study, all men and women (born between 1911 and 1925 and residing in Sweden), as well as their children, were identified in population registers and followed over time. Age-specific death risks were calculated for each calendar year for individuals having at least one child and for individuals without children. Adjusted risk differences and risk ratios were estimated.

Results Men and women having at least one child experienced lower death risks than childless men and women. At 60 years of age, the difference in life expectancy was 2 years for men and 1.5 years for women. The absolute differences in death risks increased with parents’ age and were somewhat larger for men than for women. The association persisted when the potential confounding effect of having a partner was taken into account. The gender of the child did not matter for the association between parenthood and mortality.

Conclusions Having children is associated with increased longevity, particularly in an absolute sense in old age. That the association increased with parents’ age and was somewhat stronger for the non-married may suggest that social support is a possible explanation”

Support Networks of Childless Older People in Europe: An Analysis with the Data of the Survey of Health, Ageing and Retirement in Europe (SHARE) Deindl & Brandt 2014

“Western societies age rapidly. Today people do not only live longer, they also have fewer children. These developments exert considerable pressure on pension and health systems. Children have usually been the mainstay of old age support, especially when there is no partner. We thus face new challenges: On which support networks can childless elders rely? (How) can the lack of children be compensated? Who provides help and care? What role does the state play? We assess the support networks of childless Europeans aged 50 and over in 12 countries based on the Survey of Health, Ageing and Retirement in Europe (SHARE). When comparing support networks of elders without children to those of elders with children, we focus on the importance of the extended family and of public services. Our analyses show that informal help for childless elders is often taken over by the extended family, friends and neighbors. Intense care tasks, however, are more likely provided by public providers. The family and especially intergenerational relations play an important role for support in old age. In the absence of children vital support for older persons has to be taken over by public providers in many cases. In countries with low social service provision, childless older people are thus likely to experience a lack of help, especially when depending on vital care”

Childlessness and Upward Intergenerational Support: Cross-National Evidence from Eleven European Countries  Pesando, LM 2016

“Childless individuals are often depicted as “selfish” as they opt out of raising children in favour of investing resources in themselves. Yet no research has investigated whether this claim holds in alternative domains of social life, such as intergenerational family support. Using data from the Generations and Gender Survey (GGS) for 11 European countries, this article examines differences between childless and non-childless individuals in the provision of financial, care, and emotional transfers to their elderly parents. Results do not support the idea that the childless are less prone to providing transfers upwards than individuals with children. In fact, estimates from multivariate
logistic regressions suggest that, ceteris paribus, childless adults are 26 to 31 per cent more likely to provide support to their parents as compared to the non-childless, with the effect driven by transfers to the mothers. Some evidence further hints at the existence of a cross-gender effect, whereby childless males are more likely to transfer to their mothers, whereas childless females are more likely to transfer to their fathers. These findings enrich the literature on childlessness and ageing, and
support the view that researchers and policy makers should take into more consideration not only what childless people receive or need in old age, but also what they give”

Coping without children: Comparative historical and Cross-cultural perspectives Kreager P, 2004

“Older generations are composed of a number of distinctive sub-populations which need much closer attention if the differential impacts of population ageing are to be accurately assessed. One such population is older people without children, a group commonly assumed to consist chiefly of small minorities of infertile couples. This paper draws on historical and contemporary population studies to show that there are many societies that have experienced levels of childlessness of 10 to 20 percent and higher, over long periods. These levels derive only in small part from infecundity; consideration is necessary of a range of demographic factors, including migration, marriage patterns, contraception and pathological sterility.

The implications of de facto childlessness suggest that limited or nil access to children is likely to be considerably higher than levels of infertility indicate. Rather than a marginal social phenomenon, significant numbers of elderly without children appear to be a consequence of enduring social arrangements, adaptations characteristic of longterm population stability, and adjustments to major social and economic change. Despite the aggregate advantages which levels of childlessness may give to a society in the long term, it nonetheless tends to compound the social and economic disadvantages of older people, and carries important implications for their social exclusion and powerlessness. The range of adaptive strategies that people may employ in response to childlessness and its consequences is reviewed, together with the empirical and methodological needs for further study”

Effect of childlessness on nursing home and home healthcare use Aykan H 2003

“This study examines the likelihood of nursing home and home health care use for childless older Americans. Four research questions are addressed: (1) Are the childless elderly at a greater risk of nursing home and home health care use? (2) Is it childlessness per se or not having children with particular characteristics that affects the likelihood of using these formal long-term care services? (3) Does having additional children beyond the first one have a significant effect on the use of these services? (4) Are the effects of childlessness different on the likelihood of nursing home and home health care use? Longitudinal data from the first (1993) and second (1995) waves of the Asset and Health Dynamics Among the Oldest Old Survey (AHEAD) and multinomial logistic regression models are used for the analyses. Separate models are developed for women and men, each controlling for a variety of demographic, socioeconomic, and health-related characteristics of sample persons. Findings indicate childlessness as an important risk factor, especially for older women’s use of nursing home services. Implications of findings for planning for long-term care needs of the baby boom generation are discussed”

Unequal Inequalities: The Stratification of the Use of Formal Care Among Older Europeans, Albertini M, Pavolini E, 2015

“Objectives: The general aim of the article is to incorporate the stratification perspective into the study of (long-term) care systems. In particular, 3 issues are investigated: the extents to which (a) personal and family resources influence the likelihood of using formal care in later life; (b) the unequal access to formal care is mediated by differences in the availability of informal support; (c) the relationship between individuals’ resources and the use of formal care in old age varies across care regimes and is related to the institutional design of long-term care policies.

Method: Data from Waves 1 and 2 of the Survey of Health, Ageing and Retirement in Europe for 4 countries: Denmark, Germany, France, and Italy, and population aged at least 65 (N = 9,824) were used. Population-averaged logit models were used.

Results: Logit models revealed that in terms of access to formal care: an individual’s educational level plays a limited role; family networks function similarly across the countries studied; in general, financial wealth does not have a significant effect; there is a positive relation between income and the use of formal care in Germany and Italy, and no significant relation in France and Denmark; home ownership has a negative effect in Germany and Denmark. On accounting for informal care, inequality associated with individuals’ economic resources remains substantially unaltered.

Discussion: The study shows that care systems based on services provision grant higher access to formal care and create lower inequalities. Moreover, countries where cash-for-care programs and family responsibilities are more important register inequalities in the use of formal care. Access to informal care does not mediate the distribution of formal care”

Childless older adults  Dykstra P, 2015

“Current older adults have historically low levels of childlessness. There has been a tendency to view childless older adults as a problem group, but findings show they are not more prone to poor psychological well-being and social isolation than older parents. At the end of life, however, nonparents are more likely to enter institutional care than parents. To understand the consequences of childlessness for later life it is critical to unravel the interplay of parenthood history, marital history, and gender”

Coping strategies for happy childless aging. An explorative study in Poland. Abramowska-Kmon A et al 2016

“Previous research on a quality of life of childless elderly people has not yielded unanimous results. The role of childlessness seems to differ for various life domains and its potentially negative impact can be buffered by numerous factors. For instance, a support received from a person’s social network, an income or an availability of health services are all important mediators in that respect. The present study expands our knowledge on such buffering factors. We apply explorative, qualitative methodology to investigate whether older childless people adopt any conscious coping strategies in a response to challenges that might be posed by a lack of children. We analyse a set of 42 qualitative interviews with childless men and women aged 65 or older. We reveal main concerns and worries related to childless aging and identify various coping strategies adopted in reaction to these concerns. The respondents were mostly worried that a lack of children is or can be resulting in a lack of support and care, especially in case of limitations in activities of daily living (ADL). We could identify two categories of coping strategies in face of these fears. First, our respondents aim at creating a satisfactory net of social contacts and sources of support. Second, they discussed strategies that might help them to remain independent from their social networks. In the paper, we portray these strategies and discuss their role for older childless people’s well-being”

Childlessness at the end of life: evidence from rural Wales

Wenger GC 2009

“After the spouse, children are the most likely source of informal support for an older person when the frailties of advanced old age create the need for help. Childlessness may thus be seen as particularly a problem for older people. In general, to compensate for the lack of children, childless people develop closer relationships with available next-of-kin and non-kin. Despite this, in times of need they are likely to find themselves with inadequate informal support. Using data from the Bangor Longitudinal Study of Ageing, this article explores the consequences of childlessness among persons aged 85 years or more living in rural Wales. The results indicate that by the time they reach old age, childless people have adapted to their situation and developed expectations consistent with being childfree. They have closer relationships with collateral kin, friendships are important and a high value is placed on independence. Nevertheless, unless they die suddenly or after a short acute illness, almost all of them enter residential care or a long-stay hospital at the end of their lives. It is also shown that the situation of childless people varies greatly and depends on several factors, particularly marital status, gender, social and financial capital, and on the person’s earlier investment in the strengthening of next-of-kin and non-kin networks”

Social contacts and receipt of help among older people in England: are there benefits of having more children? Grundy & Read 2012

“Objectives. To investigate whether number of children and, among parents, having a daughter is associated with older people’s likelihood of at least weekly face-to-face social contact and later receipt of help if needed. Method. Multivariate analysis of data from Waves 1 and 2 of the English Longitudinal Study of Ageing (ELSA). RESULTS: Older parents in England had higher chances of at least weekly face-to-face social contact than their childless counterparts but larger family size had only a slight additional effect. For parents, having at least one daughter was more important than number of children. Larger family size was positively associated with receipt of help from a child by parents with activities of daily living (ADL) or instrumental activities of daily living (IADL) limitations. Childless women were more likely than mothers to receive help from friends but even so had lower odds of receiving help from any informal source. Contact with a child in 2002 predicted receipt of help 2 years later. Discussion. These results show some advantages for older parents compared with childless individuals in terms of social contact and receipt of help and, among parents, an additional effect of having a daughter. Changes in family size distributions have implications for the support of older people and for planners of formal services”

Patterns and Determinants of Social Service Utilization: Comparison of the Childless Elderly and Elderly Parents Living With or Apart From Their Children Choi N 1994

“Approximately one out of five elderly persons are childless. In the absence of children who provide important emotional and instrumental support, are childless elderly more likely to usesocial services than are elderly parents? Analysis of data from the Longitudinal Survey of Aging shows that the childless elderly were more likely to say that they lacked informal instrumental support at times of illness than were the elderly parents. Nevertheless, the childless were no more likely to use social services than were the elderly parents. Strategies to improve the childless elderly’s social service use are recommended”

The actual and expected availability of informal caregivers: Childless people versus parents in the US, Albertini M et al 2015

“Current estimates indicate that 87% of Americans who are in need of long-term care receive it from unpaid caregivers. Given that adult children are one of the most important sources of informal care, it may be expected that childless older people, whose proportion has been growing, are at higher risk than parents of a lack of social support. We aim to explore how childlessness affects the probability that people with disabilities receive informal care, and whether childless elderly people differ from parents in their expectations regarding the future availability of informal caregivers. A novelty of this study is that we distinguish between different types of childlessness and explore their consequences for actual and expected social support. Our results confirm previous findings about the weaker informal networks of childless people. The gap in the likelihood of getting help between parents and childless people appears to be similar for most of the models of actual and expected support”

How Does Childlessness Affect Older Americans’ Health Status and Behavior? Plotnick R 2011

“Objectives The study examines the relationships between childlessness and ten indicators of older Americans’ health status and behavior: self-reported health, depression, limitations in performing ADL and instrumental ADL, limitations on fine and gross motor activities, obesity, being underweight, obtaining vigorous exercise, and alcohol use.

Methods Using data from the Health and Retirement Survey, the study estimates these relationships and compares findings from OLS, logit and propensity score models.

Results Childless older persons exhibit worse health and health behaviors than parents on most indicators. After controlling for confounding characteristics, for men, the evidence is strongest that childlessness is positively related to being underweight, having limitations on fine motor activities, and not getting vigorous exercise. For women, the evidence is strongest for positive relationships with being underweight and drinking heavily.

Discussion Results on being underweight, exercise and heavy drinking are consistent with the premise that parents take better care of themselves than childless elders and are more likely to avoid risky health behaviors because of social pressures and personal motivations. The result on being underweight is also consistent with the possibility that childless elders eat inadequately because they lack adult children who may help with shopping and cooking, and monitor their nutritional status”

Informal care for older people provided by their Adult children: projections of supply and demand To 2041 in England Pickard L 2008

The key conclusion of this paper is that, on the assumptions used here, the supply of intense informal care to disabled older people by their adult children in England is unlikely to keep pace with demand in future years. Demand for informal care by disabled older people is projected to exceed supply by 2017, with the ‘care gap’ widening over the ensuing years. By 2041, the gap between the numbers of people projected to provide informal care and the numbers needed to provide care if projected demand is to be met amounts to nearly 250 thousand care-providers”

No children in later life, but more and better friends? Substitution mechanisms in the personal and support networks of parents and the childless in Germany Schnettler & Wohler 2015

Given increases in childlessness, we ask if and how the permanently childless substitute for adult children in their later-life support networks. Previous research finds that they are disadvantaged on several network and support indicators. Yet, the role of different substitution mechanisms remains unclear. We examine two substitution mechanisms: substitution through adjustments of network size/composition and through higher efficiency of personal ties. Data are from the German Ageing Survey.

Our descriptive and regression results on network size/composition and the number of potential informational and emotional supporters show that both mechanisms play a role: the childless have more friends and extended kin, and they are more likely to consider them as potential supporters, than parents. Across cohorts or age groups, the relative effect size of network size/composition versus tie efficiency changes. Parents with no children nearby constitute a mixed type that shows similarities to the childless on some indicators of social support and to parents with at least one child nearby on other indicators. Our findings provide a foundation for better predicting how current demographic trends affect future scenarios of social support in later life and for identifying the future need for formal care services. Thus, they are relevant for social scientists and policy makers alike

How important is parenthood? Childlessness and support in old age in England Wenger GC et al 2000

“Familial relationships are popularly and sociologically viewed as crucial to the social support of elderly people, and of these the relationships between adult children and their parents are generally regarded as the most important (Finch and Mason 1993). But could these expectations be part of a cultural myth? In actuality, does the distinction between parenthood and childlessness make much difference to social support in old age? The present paper addresses this question. Using data from Liverpool, it compares the support networks of older people in three categories: parents (nearly always married); those who married but remained childless; and those who did not marry and remained childless. Its principal finding is that childlessness has a negative impact on support network strength only for singlemen and for married women. This suggests that youthful investment in a lasting marriage incurs high social opportunity costs for women in old age, unless offset by the survival of children. The findings have implications for the evaluation of social policies that are based on the expectation that individual female family members, in the context of a male-breadwinner family, will provide ‘caring’ for dependent persons. Such provision of care may incur diminished receipt of care for some women in old age”

Childlessness, Psychological Well-being, and Life Satisfaction Among the Elderly in China Zhang, W. & Liu, G 2007

“This paper examines the effects of childlessness on the well-being of persons aged 65 and above in China. It is based on an application of ordered-logit regression in the analysis of the data from the 2002 wave of the Chinese Longitudinal Healthy Longevity Survey (CLHLS) conducted in 22 provinces of China (N = 13,447). It compares parents with the childless elderly, focusing on three dimensions of psychological well-being, namely feelings of anxiety, loneliness, and uselessness, and on life satisfaction. The findings include the following. First, with control of social demographic variables of age, gender and education, childlessness is significantly associated with life satisfaction, feeling of anxiety and loneliness, but not feeling of uselessness. The childless elderly are less satisfied with their lives and feel more anxious and lonely than do parents, but they do not necessarily feel significantly more useless. Second, when controlled with social-demographic variables and additional socioeconomic variables of residence, living arrangement, availability of pension and medical services, childlessness is no longer significantly related to anxiety and loneliness, and it is related at only a marginally-significant level to life satisfaction. Third, individual education, place of residence, living arrangements, economic security and access to medical services are consistently related to life satisfaction and psychological well-being among the elderly. We conclude that providing social investments in education in early life and economic security and medical insurance in later life for both the childless and parents are crucial for improving individual psychological well-being and life satisfaction for the elderly”

Life without fatherhood: a qualitative study of older involuntarily childless men, Hadly R 2015

“This thesis reveals the complexities in older men’s experience of involuntary childlessness. Research literature on both involuntary childlessness and ageing has highlighted the paucity of material on men’s experience. The aim of this study was to explore and understand the impact of childlessness on the lives of older, self-defined, involuntarily childless men. This qualitative study employed a pluralistic framework formed by life course, biographical, and gerontological approaches to explore the lives of 14 men, aged between 49 and 82 years. A broad thematic analysis was applied to the material, and the findings demonstrated the intersections between childlessness and ageing over the life course. Reproductive intentions were affected by many factors including the timing of exiting education, relationship formation and dissolution, and choice of partner. The men’s attitude to fatherhood changed with age and centred on the theme of the ‘social clock’ that revealed the synergy between an individual and societal morès surrounding parenthood. The loss of the assumed father role and relationship ebbed and flowed throughout the men’s lives in a form of complex bereavement. Awareness of feeling both a sense of ‘outsiderness’ and a fear of being viewed as a paedophile were widely reported. Quality of life was linked with current health, and ageing was strongly associated with loss of physical or mental functionality.

This thesis supports the case for a biographical method of research drawing on a pluralistic framework. It challenges research that reports men are not affected by the social, emotional and relational aspects of involuntary childlessness. In addition, it adds to the debate between the concepts of ‘emergent’ and ‘hegemonic’ masculinities. Recommendations are made in the conclusion regarding the use of the findings for future research and policy”

Going solo: Findings from a survey of women aging without a partner and who do not have children Hafford – Letchfield T et al  2016

“Greater longevity in the UK population has led to the increasing diversity of women experiencing aging in a multitude of ways. Internationally, gender inequalities in aging are still relatively invisible within both government policy and everyday life for particular groups of women. This article explores the concept of women growing older “solo”—by which we mean women who find themselves nonpartnered and aging without children as they move into later life. We report on the findings from a mixed-methods survey of 76 solo women in the UK aged 50 years and over, used to provide a broader overview of the issues and challenges they face as they move into later life. Qualitative data from the survey captured respondents’ perspectives about the links between their relationships status and well-being in later life and highlighted specific cumulative disadvantages emerging for some women as a result of their solo lifestyles. We discuss two key themes that were identified, “solo-loneliness” and “meaningful futures,” in conjunction with the relevant literature and make suggestions for future research within gender and aging studies that could enhance more positive approaches to solo lifestyles”

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