Research, opinion: The health and wealth of older men and women with no kids

Bella DePaulo

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When people get to be 55 and older without ever having biological children, how are they doing? The U.S. Census Bureau published an important report on that topic, based on comparisons of biological parents to adults who have no biological children. Unlike many studies of adults with no children, this one included both men and women. The survey was based on a nationally representative survey of 92,200 adults who were 55 or older and not institutionalized. The data were collected in 2018, and the report, “Childless Older Americans: 2018,” authored by Tayelor Valerio, Brian Knop, Rose M. Kreider, and Wan He, was released in 2021.

In some ways, the older adults with no biological children were doing quite well. For example, they were more highly educated than the biological parents. The women with no biological children reported the best health and they were least likely to have a disability. They also had the highest net worth. However, poverty rates were higher for older adults with no biological children than for biological parents, suggesting that, financially, there are distinct groups of older adults with no biological children, including those who are thriving and those who are barely surviving.

How many older adults in the U.S. have no biological children?

Of adults in the U.S. who are 55 or older, 16.5 percent have no biological children. Men are more likely than women to have no biological children, 18.2 percent compared to 15.0 percent.

Hispanics have the smallest percentage of older adults with no biological children (11) and Whites the highest (17). For Blacks, the percentage is 14.5, and for Asians, 12.8.

The number of adults who have no biological children has been growing. The youngest of the older people have the highest percent with no biological children:

55-64 years old: 19.6 percent

65-74 years old: 15.9 percent

75 and older: 10.9 percent

As the authors note, the percentage of adults with no children in the U.S. has been fairly high at other times, too. From the late 19th through the mid-20th century, rates ranged from 10 percent to 25 percent. The historian Rachel Chrastil, in How to Be Childless, reported that in Northwestern Europe from 1500 on, the percent of adults with no children was also high, with the same exception as in the U.S.: the baby boom years.

Marital status and living arrangements

Lifelong single people and people living alone are more likely to have no biological children.

Of the lifelong single (never married) adults, 70.9 percent have no biological children. Of those who are married or were once married, 12.1 percent have no biological children. (These numbers are not in the report; I computed them from Table 4).

Another way to look at this is to ask, of all older adults with no biological children, what percent have ever been married? The answer is 67.9 percent. In contrast, nearly all biological parents, 97.4 percent, are currently married or were previously married.

Of the older adults currently living alone, 34 percent of the men and 24 percent of the women have no biological children. Of those currently living with a spouse or romantic partner, about 12 percent of both the men and the women have no biological children.

Health and disability

Good health

In every group, more than 70 percent of adults 55 and older report that their health is good (good, very good, or excellent). The percent with good health was highest for the women with no biological children.

Highest to lowest:

77 percent: women with no biological children

74 percent: biological fathers

74 percent: biological mothers

72 percent: men with no biological children

Disability

The adults were categorized as having a disability if they had severe difficulty in at least one of six categories: hearing, seeing, cognitive, ambulatory, self-care, independent living. Women with no biological children were the least likely to have a disability.

Lowest to highest:

35.6 percent: women with no biological children

37.2 percent: men with no biological children

38.2 biological fathers

39.0 biological mothers

Wealth and poverty

Wealth (net worth)

Women with no biological children had the greatest net worth, although their advantage over biological fathers was not statistically significant. Net worth is calculated by subtracting the debts that are owed, such as credit card bills and mortgages, from assets that are owned, such as home equity and retirement accounts.

Highest to lowest:

$173,800: women with no biological children

$161,200: biological fathers

$132,500: men with no biological children

$109,500: biological mothers

Poverty

Although women with no biological children have the most wealth, older adults without biological children (both women and men) are more likely to have family incomes below the poverty line than biological parents. Biological fathers are the least likely to be impoverished. The authors suggest that there may be notable variability among those who do not have biological children, “with a portion who are socioeconomically well-off and another who may be at greater risk of financial hardship.”

Lowest to highest:

7.5 percent: biological fathers

10.5 percent: biological mothers

12.2 percent: women with no biological children

12.6 percent: men with no biological children

Education

Older adults with no biological children are more highly educated than older adults who are biological parents. For example, they were more likely to have at a bachelor’s degree or more and less likely to have a high school degree or less. The authors did not report separate findings for men vs. women.

Bachelor’s degree or higher

38.4 percent: no biological children

30.0 percent: biological parents

High school degree or less

43.3 percent: biological parents

34.5 percent: no biological children

Rethinking what it means to have no biological children

People who do not have kids have often been viewed in negative ways. Married people who choose not to have kids, for example, are the targets of moral outrage (as are people who choose to be single). And yet, there is evidence that, in important ways, both groups do remarkably well, even in old age when they are most likely to be pitied.

A study of more than 10,000 Australian women in their seventies found that, in most ways, the lifelong single women with no kids were doing as well or even better than the married or previously married women, with or without kids. Other research has also produced stereotype-defying findings about lifelong single people. We need to stop wondering what is wrong with people who never marry or never have kids and start trying to understand why they are doing so well, despite all the stereotyping and discrimination.

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Expert on the profound rewards of single life. Author of “Singled Out.” Popular TEDx speaker. Harvard PhD.

Summerland, CA
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