Kids just aren't as big a part of American life as they used to be.
Americans' child-free years are expanding as empty-nest seniors live longer and more young adults delay – or skip – childbearing. In 1960, nearly half of all households had children under 18. By 2000, the portion had fallen to less than a third, and in a few short years it's projected to drop to a quarter, according to a report from the National Marriage Project.
Children are also taking a back seat in perceptions of marriage's purpose. Since 1990, the percentage of people who said children were very important to a successful marriage tumbled from 65 percent to 41 percent. The findings were released in a Pew Research report last week.
For some child-free Americans, their growing numbers argue for greater equality with parents in government benefits, the workplace, and social esteem. That worries family researchers and child advocates who see in the same trends a move to a more "adult-centered culture" – one that threatens the strength of families and the social compact to provide for the next generation.
"We are getting much more of an adult-oriented culture than has ever existed arguably, and that could prove problematic," says David Popenoe, codirector of the National Marriage Project at Rutgers University in New Jersey. "You can envision a society in which children are kind of an afterthought and not in the interests of society as a whole."
He sees the priorities reflected on television: Almost gone are family sitcoms in favor of a generation of programs following the model of "Friends" and "Sex and the City."
And he worries about a shift at the ballot box. In New Jersey, voters rejected nearly half of school budgets in the state last year – the lowest passage rate in more than a decade, according to a report from Mr. Popenoe's center.
Harder for child advocates
With parents a smaller presence at the polls – just under 40 percent in the 2004 presidential election, some child advocates say it's getting harder to win empathy on issues.
"It's not: Do people love children? It's: Are they thinking about them?" says Robert Fellmeth, director of the Children's Advocacy Institute at the University of California San Diego School of Law.
In California, older adults are not passing along opportunities to the next generation, Dr. Fellmeth argues. He decries the lack of universal health coverage for children, low funding for foster-child families, and skyrocketing university tuitions.
Fellmeth also sees children being jammed into extreme poverty by the growing trend of out-of-wedlock births – which now stand at 37 percent. The Pew report found growing acceptance among younger people for childbearing outside marriage.
"Conservatives in rural areas have basically formed a contract with urban liberals [in California] at the expense of my clients," says Fellmeth. Conservatives, he explains, have tacitly agreed to stop criticizing out-of-wedlock births in exchange for an agreement from liberals to scale back spending on child welfare services.
When child-free adults and their advocates look at the political and cultural landscape, however, they still see inequalities that favor married families and children despite the demographic shifts away from Ozzie and Harriet's day.
A major flash point: workplace benefits. Family-friendly policies such as flex leave and day-care options not only allocate more of the benefits pie to workers with children, but child-free workers also can be left picking up the slack for co-workers on family leave, says Thomas Coleman with Unmarried America, a nonprofit information service about unmarried adults based in Glendale, Calif.
Myriad government policies, he says, leave the child-free feeling like second-class citizens – everything from the exclusion of siblings under the federal Family and Medical Leave Act to greater death benefits given to families by Social Security and the US military.
But with only 35 percent of the US workforce having a child under 18 at home, businesses have begun shifting to more neutral work-life programs. They include the same amount of paid time off for all workers, cafeteria-style benefits, and generic benefits like gym memberships that all workers can utilize.
"No one is advocating ignoring the needs of children or those who are raising children. That's important to everyone in society whether you have children or not, but things have to be more balanced," says Mr. Coleman.
Part of that balancing act, he says, is taking into account the 19 percent of women in their early 40s who are childless. That's up from 9.5 percent 26 years ago.
Women are marrying later, devoting more attention to careers, and waiting longer to have children, which sometimes results in them not having children at all.
Other times the choice is deliberate. According to the National Center for Health Statistics, 6.2 percent of women in 2002 between ages 15 and 44 reported that they don't expect to have children in their lifetime – up from 4.9 percent in 1982.
It's not a widely respected choice.
"There is a social stigma, [but] I think it's not equally applied across the country and not equally applied to both genders," says Vincent Ciaccio, a spokesman for No Kidding!, an international group for people without children based in Vancouver, British Columbia. "I am aware of [some women] who just don't mention they are child-free in mixed company."
Poll of the child-free
For a master's thesis, Mr. Ciaccio conducted one of the few surveys of the child-free in the United States, involving 450 individuals. The more common motivations included concerns for personal space and time, and no feeling of a compelling reason to have kids.
Among married couples in Ciaccio's survey, 62 percent said they were concerned children would undermine their relationship with their spouse.
Preserving spousal companionship ranked high in another survey of 171 child-free individuals that was conducted by Laura Scott, who is working on a documentary about being childless by choice. In dozens of sit-down interviews with childless individuals, Ms. Scott also found generally high support for public education and community programs for children.
Ciaccio's survey highlighted certain causes among the childless, including government subsidies for birth control, holding parents responsible for their children, and the establishment of child-free areas in restaurants, movie theaters, and apartments. Also of great importance: simple respect for their decision.
"People who don't have children and parents have a lot in common. They are not natural antagonists," says Ciaccio. "If parents respect the choices of people who have not had kids, and people who have not had kids respect the choices of parents, then we can all move forward together for mutual benefit."