- Among college graduates, men who are the top earners are the least likely to be childless, and men who earn less are increasingly more likely to be childless. Every step down the ladder of income is associated with a higher likelihood of remaining childless, says Margarita Chudnovskaya, researcher in Demography.

Previous research has shown that highly educated men and women often partner with each other, and that college educated women preferred men with a high education. In Sweden today, there are nearly two women for every man among recent college graduates. According to demographic theories of the “marriage market,” the “demand” for highly educated men should have increased as women compete for highly educated male partners.

- The actual trend is the opposite of what was expected—around 23% of men with a college degree remain childless, and this level has been consistent over the last decades. The majority of highly educated women in Sweden now instead have their first child with a man who has lower education – though the man still has a higher income. There is thus no evidence that there is more competition among women for highly educated male partners, says Margarita Chudnovskaya.

In the wake of this development, she wanted to investigate what distinguishes men who remain childless after finishing their degree from those who have a child by age 40. Using high-quality Swedish register data she studied all college-educated men in Sweden born 1945-1974.

In addition to income, there are important differences across field of study. Men who graduated with degrees in technology (including computer programming), humanities and theology, and fine arts have the highest likelihood of remaining childless. In contrast, men with degrees in education, medicine, and health and social care all have a lower likelihood of childlessness.

Men's preferences are also likely to play a role: men who study in technical fields or in the humanities may be less interested in having children. It seems likely, however, that an important part of the explanation has to do with challenges these men might face in finding a partner. Men with higher incomes may also be the kind of men who are more attractive to women, perhaps because they offer security or are more ambitious in their careers.

Margarita Chudnovskaya. Photo: Stockholm university
Margarita Chudnovskaya. Photo: Stockholm university

- This study promotes our understanding of romantic relationships in Sweden today. College education has traditionally been a desirable social status attribute—but these findings suggest that higher education is not a priority for highly educated women, says Margarita Chudnovskaya.

These results have major implications for understanding future family developments abroad. Nearly every OECD country has a similar gender imbalance in higher education and college educated women increasingly partner with lower educated men. Other countries are likely to see a trend similar to Sweden, and this trend could be explained by the fact that education loses some importance as a marker of status. Instead men’s likelihood of becoming fathers will depend on their field of education and income.

For more information

Margarita Chudnovskaya, researcher in Demography, telephone +46 (0) 8-16 18 65, margarita.chudnovskaya@sofi.su.se

More about the research

The thesis ”Higher education and family formation: A story of Swedish educational expansion” is written by Margarita Chudnovskaya. You can find the studies in the thesis here.