Not having children is often driven by inability to form a union by Ryohei Mogi

One of the societal challenges in high-income countries (HICs) is fertility decline below replacement level, driven by increasing childlessness (Zeman et al. 2018). For example, in Southern Europe and East Asia, more than 20% of women in recent generations remained childless (Sobotka 2017). There is less research on low- and middle-income countries (LMICs), not least because of a common assumption that childlessness is not prevalent in settings with higher fertility. However, childlessness has increased in some Sub-Saharan Africa and Latin American countries (Rosero-Bixby et al. 2009; Verkroost and Monden 2022). In both LMICs and HICs, the male childlessness has received less attention and thus there is also a notable lack of research on gender differences in and the determinants of childlessness across diverse contexts.

Understanding the determinants of childlessness is vital. There is evidence that most individuals remain childless unintentionally (Kreyenfeld and Konietzka 2017). In HICs, health issues and economic constraints are often named as key reasons for remaining childless unintentionally. However, when surveys explicitly ask why people remained childless (e.g., in Japan, Spain and the UK) the primary reason seems to be the inability to meet the right partner. In LMICs, the focus has also been on health reasons and economic determinants. Partnership status has received less attention, even though it has been speculated that factors behind childlessness in HICs might be operating also in LMICs, albeit likely to a smaller extent (see Verkroost and Monden (2022) on Sub-Saharan Africa).

We used Generations and Gender Survey and Demographic and Health Surveys to compute proportions of childless population aged 35+ and proportions of individuals who have never been in union among those remaining childless in 64 countries (see Supplementary material). The figure displays estimates of childlessness for the 1960s birth cohort. The moon shape inside each dot represents the proportion of those who have never been in union among the childless population (the brighter the moon, the larger the corresponding proportion).

Countries with higher level of development tend to have higher levels of childlessness for both women and men. Sweden, with the highest human development index, has 32.8% among males and 27.3% among females; Chad, with the lowest human development index, has 1.7% and 0.8% for males and females, respectively. Nonetheless, some countries with lower level of development have proportions as high as the most developed countries among men (e.g., Peru, Brazil, and Mauritania) and women (Georgia and Myanmar). There is a striking gender gap in childlessness that varies across development levels. In Europe, post-Soviet countries, and Latin America, men are more likely to be childless than women. West and Southeast Asia show a mixed pattern. In Africa, the gender gap is the smallest in absolute terms.

Northwest Europe has relatively low proportions of childless individuals who have never been in a union by age 35 (both men and women). South and East Europe, post-Soviet states, and Africa have higher proportions, particularly among men, suggesting that union status is likely a significant reason for remaining childless among men in these countries. Whilst Latin America shows a mixed gender pattern, and in West and Southeast Asia, the pattern reverses and childless women are more likely than men to never form a union.