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1 in 5 women are childless at 45

A look at childlessness and fertility patterns over the last 70 years

What proportion of women in England and Wales don’t have children?

In 2011, one in five women reaching the age of 45 in England and Wales had never given birth to a child. This relates to women born in 1966 who were assumed to have reached the end of their childbearing years.  Similarly, one in five women born between 1961 and 1965 were childless when they had reached the age of 45 in the preceding years.

Childlessness is increasing

We can think of women as school classes of 100 girls born in each year.

The chart shows the number of women born in selected years who had had at least one child by each age. We will look at women born in 1966, the most recent group of women to finish having children, and women born in 1939, a group broadly equivalent to their mothers, based on the average age of women giving birth in 1966, 27 years old.

Number of women from the school class of 100 who have had at least one child

Number of women from the school class of 100 who have had at least one child

Download chart

So imagine if in 1969 there was a class reunion of 100 women born in 1939, who were then 30. We would see that around 80 out of the 100 women had had at least one child, and 20 were still child free at the age of 30.

In contrast at the class reunion in 1996 of 30-year-old women who had been born in 1966, a much smaller proportion, 58 of the 100, would have had a child by then, leaving 42 child free at this age.

Now imagine that the same groups of women held a second set of school reunions when they were aged 45. We would see that 88 of the 100 women born in 1939, and 80 of the 100 women born in 1966, had had a child by this time. Only a very tiny proportion of women have their first child at ages greater than 45, so this means that 12 of the women born in 1939 remained childless, but 20 of the women born in 1966, their daughters’ generation, remained childless.

The most recent group of women for whom we have data up to age 30 is those born in 1981. At their age 30 school reunion in 2011 there would have been fewer women who had already had children. Only 55 out of the 100 had children, so slightly less than the women born in 1966, where 58 had children. We don’t yet know what proportion of these women will still be child free at the age of 45, since they have not yet reached this age.

This rising number of women who remain child free at age 30 is partly a result of women delaying having their first child.

Age at first birth going up

We mentioned earlier that the chart showed women were delaying having children to older ages. We can illustrate this by looking at the data in more detail.

Let’s go back to the group of 100 women born in 1939. By the time the group were aged 22, a quarter of them had had one or more babies. When they reached 24, half of the women had had at least one baby, and by 28, the figure had gone up to three out of every four of them, so 75 in all, have had at least one baby.

Now let’s look at the women born in 1966. Of a group of 100, a quarter would have had a baby by the age of 23, which is only slightly older than the women born in 1939. But where half of the women born in 1939 had had a baby by the age of 24, it was not until they were aged  28 that half of the women born in 1966 had had one or more babies.  Only when they were aged  37 had three-quarters of the women born in 1966 given birth, so they did not reach this proportion until nine years later than their mothers’ group. This shows how the average age at which women have children has been increasing.

Where can I get more information on childlessness and other fertility patterns?

More detailed tables showing proportions of women who have had a birth by each age, for women born in 1920 onwards, are available in the 2011 Cohort Fertility release, published 7 March 2013.

Or if you have any questions, email fertility@ons.gsi.gov.uk 

Categories: Population, Births and Fertility, Live Births and Stillbirths, Conception and Fertility Rates, Live Births, Fertility, Average Family Size, Age-specific Fertility Rates
Content from the Office for National Statistics.
© Crown Copyright applies unless otherwise stated.