One in five women is childless by age of 45
One in five women is childless by the time they reach their mid-forties, according to new UK figures showing that fertility rates have fallen to a 44-year low.
At the same time, the number of women over the age of 40 having children has almost doubled in the last 10 years as women delay motherhood for longer.
Among younger mothers, marriage is increasingly being sidelined, with almost three-times as many women in their early 20s giving birth while single or cohabiting than as part of a married couple.
Analysts said the figures suggested that more women were delaying starting a family because they were focused on their careers, and took longer to find the right man. Rising property prices may also have made it harder for couples to settle down and begin family life.
The figures from the UK Office for National Statistics provided a detailed picture of the changing patterns of parenthood in England and Wales over the past five decades.
They showed that 20% of women aged 45 in 2009 had no children, the highest rate of childlessness for the mid-forties age group since 1965, when the male population had been hit by World War II.
The figure was far higher than their own mothers’ generation, among whom 12 per cent were still without children by the age of 45.
The average family size has also shrunk considerably, with 1.9 children per 45-year-old woman last year, compared with 2.4 children each for their mothers’ generation, which the ONS calculated as women who were born in 1937.
Anastasia de Waal, head of families policy at the think-tank Civitas, said the figures reflected a major social change in women’s identities.
“We are seeing an increase in the number of women who perhaps don’t want to have children as they may have invested all their energies in their careers,” she said.
“Being childless is now viable option. It is considered something which is socially acceptable - your career can be your baby, as it were.”
She said couples were also starting long-term relationships later in life. However, the trend has an impact on fertility rates, with older women finding it more difficult to conceive. “Everything is being pushed back. So the window of opportunity to have a child has become much smaller,” she said.
“That’s why we are seeing an increase in the number of women having children over a particular age but at the same time we are seeing a concurrent increase in the number of women having far fewer children than in the past. They don’t have many years to have children in terms of health risks and complications.”
The ONS figures showed that 26,976 births out of a total of 706,248 in England and Wales last year were to women over the age of 40. This was nearly double the 14,252 births to mothers over 40 in 1999.
At the same time, the number of births to younger mothers aged between 20 and 24 has risen sharply to 136,012. Three-quarters of these were births outside marriage, up from 61% in 1999.
Justine Roberts, founder of Mumsnet, said there was less “cultural pressure” on couples to marry before having children than in the past.
“A lot of people are realistic about what marriage means and how so many marriages end up in failure,” she said. “Perhaps it is not necessarily so fashionable as it used to be.