A research team from Michigan State University’s Psychology department tracked Michigan adults’ attitudes and preferences about having children. The team was interested in adults who did not have children, and especially in their plans for the future. The team asked Michiganders to share their thoughts on the Spring 2020 and Fall 2021 State of the State surveys.
The fertility rate in Michigan has been below the population replacement level since 1990, and has been steadily declining since 2000, reaching the lowest level on record in 2020. This has contributed to the state’s low population growth rate and high median age. In our research, we found that one possible explanation for these trends is the fact that more than one-in-five Michiganders report that they do not want children, and are therefore “childfree.”
What is “childfree”?
Childfree adults do not want to have children and are sometimes also called voluntarily childless. They are different from many other categories of adults who also do not have children. For example, they are different from childless adults who wanted to have children but were unable to have children due to infertility or life circumstances. They are also different from not-yet-parents who plan to have children in the future, undecided adults who do not know yet if they want children, and ambivalent adults who are indifferent about having children.
Because childfree adults explicitly do not want children, they are different from parents, and from these other groups who do not have children. However, our research finds that they are similar to these groups in many other ways. For example, childfree adults are just as satisfied with their lives and they have similar personality traits to others. Our research also finds that older childfree Michiganders decided to be childfree early in their lives, suggesting that childfree Michiganders do not change their minds later.
Through the Institute of Public Policy and Social Research (IPPSR) at MSU, our research team posed 3 yes/no questions to Michiganders through The State of the State Survey (SOSS) to determine whether they are childfree. First, we asked “Do you have, or have you ever had, any biological, step-, or adopted children?” If the respondent answered “no,” then we asked “Do you plan to have any biological or adopted children in the future?” If the respondent answered “no,” then we asked “Do you wish you had or could have biological or adopted children?” The 244 respondents who answered no to all three questions were classified as childfree. We used statistical methods to estimate that 21.64% (95% CI: 18.39 – 24.88) of Michiganders are childfree (see figure 1). This makes childfree adults the largest group of Michiganders who do not have children.
Why do childfree adults matter?
Childfree adults are important in Michigan for several reasons:
- Following the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Dobbs v. Jackson Women's Health Organization and given Michigan’s 1931 anti-abortion law, these Michiganders are at risk of being forced to have children despite not wanting them.
- Childfree adults may be marginalized by parents in workplace and community settings because parents report feeling much warmer toward other parents than toward childfree adults (see figure 2).
- This group is much larger than previously estimated and second in size only to parents (49.62%), which means they are an important but overlooked political constituency.
- Because many Michiganders do not want children and Michigan’s declining population led to the loss of a seat in the U.S. House of Representatives, the state must look to in-migration to maintain its influence in national politics.
Michigan has a diverse population, and that is one of its key strengths. There is substantial diversity in Michiganders’ plans to have children, and more than one-in-five do not want to have children at all. This large group of childfree adults is often overlooked, but is important for legal, equity, and political reasons. It is important for state lawmakers and policymakers to be aware of this group, and to consider their needs when making law and policy.
To learn more:
Neal, Z. P. and Neal, J. W. (2022). Prevalence, Age of Decision, and Interpersonal Warmth Judgements of Childfree Adults. Scientific Reports. https://doi.org/10.1038/s41598-022-15728-z
Neal, J. W., & Neal, Z. P. (2021). Prevalence and characteristics of childfree adults in Michigan (USA). PLoS ONE, 16(6), e0252528. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0252528