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A model of voluntary childlessness


Demographers and sociologists have studied why women remain childless for more than two decades; however, this specific choice of zero fertility has not interested economists. Permanent childlessness, in developed countries, can concern up to 30 % of the women in a cohort. Childlessness rates can be positively related to average fertility for some cohorts of women. This paper provides an explanation for this using an endogenous fertility model where individuals have different preferences for children. The main mechanism considered goes through the intergenerational evolution of preferences: I show that a reduction in the gender wage gap, or an increase in the fixed cost of becoming a parent, has a negative effect on both fertility and childlessness. The reduction of childlessness is due to a composition effect: small families shrink more than larger families, and this reduces childlessness.

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  1. In the USA, the Census Bureau reveals that the number of children ever born (CEB) per woman aged 40–44 years old was 2.86 in 1981 and 1.86 in 2006; the childlessness rate for this cohort of women has increased from 9.5 to 20.4 %.

  2. See a.o. Poston and Trent (1982), Toulemon (1996), or Rowland (2007).

  3. Murray and Lagger (2001) show that childless men who graduated from an Amherst College in Massachusetts between 1861 and 1899 married in average later than fathers.

  4. Preference Theory distinguishes between family-oriented, career-oriented, and adaptive women. For a test of whether Preference Theory can explain low fertility levels for some European countries, see Vitali et al. (2009).

  5. The data is taken from Ruggles et al. (2010), details are provided in a separate Appendix.

  6. For the Netherlands, the correlation coefficient between the cohort (total) fertility rate and childlessness for women born between 1900 and 1954 is 0.60 (see separate Appendix).

  7. For the evolution of completed fertility for these cohorts, see Jones and Tertilt (2008).

  8. See Bianchi et al. (2004) for an analysis on parental time investment on children.

  9. This is in line with the traditional approach to analyze household choices, i.e., Barro and Becker (1986). For a comparison with the collective and nash-bargaining approaches, see Manser and Brown (1980) and McElroy and Horney (1981). Mazzocco (2007) empirically rejects intra-household commitment on the domestic allocation of resources in a unitary lifetime decision model, but as no paper has looked at the dynamics of both childlessness and fertility within any framework, this is a natural starting point.

  10. Cigno (2012) provides a theoretical analysis on marriage commitment and the efficient allocation of childcare within a couple.

  11. Contrary to Becker (1981), Cigno (1991), and others, I assume that the unit cost of children is exogenous for analytical convenience. For an overview on the lifetime costs of parenthood and the cost function of children, see Chapter 6 in Cigno (1991).

  12. Note that with no fixed cost (k = 0), we would still have childlessness for values such that \(\gamma^j \leq \frac{\theta w^\textrm{f}_t}{w^\textrm{m}_t+w^\textrm{f}_t}\).

  13. In a separate Appendix, I discuss this hypothesis and show that letting for a positive degree of assortativeness in the marriage market does not affect the results. See also Cigno (1991) on assortative matching.

  14. γ j > θ ensures that fertility is positive for at least some values of \(w^\textrm{f}_t\).

  15. The cases a = b and a < b as well as an analysis with endogenous probabilities are provided in a separate Appendix. In particular, assuming exogenous probabilities leads to the same kind of results obtained when a and b depend on both the willingness of children of the parents and the average fertility of the population. The empirical justification for this type of extension is provided in Fernández and Fogli (2006).

  16. This choice is coherent with the estimates of Acemoglu et al. (2004).

  17. Turchi (1975, Tables 3–5, p. 92).

  18. See also Burda et al. (2006) for a comparison.

  19. The dynamics of z remain monotonic, and the relationships between n and χ, l and χ, and \(w^\textrm{f}/w^\textrm{m}\) and χ, along the transition path remain the same if we simulate with ρ = 1 (i.e., \(L^\textrm{m}\) and \(L^{\textrm{f}}\) are complements). The parameter that changes the most is the distribution parameter α, which increases to 0.742.

  20. Empirical evidence for this type of shock is supported by the results of O’Neill and Polachek (1993).

  21. See Goldin (1990) for a historical analysis on the gender wage gap.

  22. For real index of housing prices, see Fig. 1 Skinner (1991).


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I thank two referees, Thomas Baudin, Raouf Boucekkine, Hippolyte d’Albis, Matthias Doepke, David de la Croix, Axel Gosseries, Ross Guest, Fabio Mariani, Alexia Prskawetz, and Alice Schoonbroodt for helpful comments and references. I also acknowledge the financial support of the Belgian–French speaking community (Grant ARC 009-14018 on “Sustainability”).

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Correspondence to Paula E. Gobbi.

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Gobbi, P.E. A model of voluntary childlessness. J Popul Econ 26, 963–982 (2013).

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  • Fertility
  • Childlessness
  • Female labor-market participation

JEL Classification

  • J11
  • J13
  • O11