Attitudes to family formation in Scotland

This report summarises the findings of two research studies commissioned externally by the Ministerial Population Taskforce on attitudes to family formation and ideal family size in Scotland. It includes the full report of the qualitative research exploring barriers and enablers of ideal family size

Key findings of both studies

Views on ideal family size

As part of the quantitative study, the survey of adults asked questions about the current composition of their households along with a question about participants' expectations and ideal family size. Comparing the actual numbers of children survey participants had with expectations and aspirations provided three measures: current, ideal and expected family size. The mean current family size for all 2021 respondents was 1.69, while the expected number of children reported was 2.02, with an ideal family size of 2.08 children.

In looking at the respondents of a childbearing age (18-49 years old), the difference between ideal and current family size is bigger, with the current number of children reported as 1.22 and the expected number of children reported as 1.72. However the ideal family size for this age group is 1.85, a higher figure than their actual and their expected family sizes. As people expected to have more children than they currently have, their expectations were closer to their ideal number.

The difference between self-reported ideal and expected numbers of children, compared with actual self-reported birth rates, shows that a gap exists between the number of children that people report that they would like to have, and the number they are actually having. This was reflected in the focus group discussions where most participants also reported wanting more children than they would expect to have, basing their considerations on their current financial, relationship and career status.

Sixteen percent of respondents reported that their ideal family size was no children, with 39% of single adults reporting zero as their ideal number of children. When this question was last asked, in 2005, only 7% replied that this was their ideal.[4] It was noted in the qualitative study that Scotland is a place in which the make-up of families has changed, and there is now less stigma associated with those who choose not to have children. Greater social acceptance around families of all shapes and sizes was welcomed. However, it was mentioned that families may still put pressure on couples around their choices, leading to the assumption that they will have children (and more than one).

It is also worth noting that respondents living in larger cities were more likely to not have children (46%) than those living in rural areas (26%). We find evidence in data that childlessness is a more common preference in larger cities or more urbanised areas (36% of respondents in urban and larger cities prefer no children).

Factors influencing change

Scotland's fertility rate has broadly declined since the 1990s,[5] and as mentioned above, the ideal family size reported among members of the public appears to have also decreased over time. This could mean that people are adjusting their ideals and expectations, and both studies show evidence of the different factors that shape an individual's family formation.

The qualitative study showed that the individual's financial, social and personal situation are key considerations when deciding on their family size. There is, additionally, evidence of attitudinal shifts and expectations around having children, such as people delaying parenthood in favour of an established career – especially for women – and appropriate housing (e.g. a room for each child). Delaying parenthood is seen as a reason why families are becoming smaller as mothers in their mid-thirties and early forties are increasing.[6] Also group discussions identified a more tolerant and respected attitudes towards people who choose not to have children even though it was noted that there is a social expectation that (especially) couples will have children at some point.

Participants in focus groups described also a change in attitudes towards couples having children in same sex relationships with greater acceptance of non-traditional families. Even though our findings suggest a societal change, there are also barriers at play.


In the quantitative survey, respondents who indicated they would not have any, or any more children were asked to give the main reasons why, while participants in focus groups discussed the main barriers they identified as limiting their expectations.

Fifty-three percent of survey respondents said they felt like they were too old to have (more) children, while half of respondents aged 30-39 and 58% of those aged 40-49 were happy with their current family size. Although age was not reported as being a limiting factor in the focus groups, participants identified that people are having their first child later in life, which may limit their family size expectations. Another important factor detailed in the quantitative study was relationship status, with 51% of respondents who are single choosing not to have any or more children because they did not have a partner. Respondents who are single were also more likely to not want children at all (17%). This was also echoed in the qualitative study, with many participants stating that it was important to be in a stable relationship before having children.

Financial concerns were cited extensively in all focus groups. Lack of financial resource alone was enough of an issue to make people delay or decide against having children. This is also reflected in the survey as 51% of respondents, who declared themselves to be finding it difficult financially (as worded in the survey question), had no children. The cost of childcare, the inadequacy of maternity leave pay, and home ownership were reported as the main financial worries impacting on people's family size expectations. Not being able to afford having any, or more children was the most prominent reason for limiting family size for adults aged 30-39 years old (34%).This suggests that financial circumstances could act as a deterrent when planning to have any or subsequent children, especially in groups of childbearing age.

Environmental concerns were not widely cited as a decision-making factor among research participants, with only 9% of survey respondents reporting it in terms of their influencing their views on limited their family size. However it was noted that younger people with no children and those in higher socio economic groups expressed more concern. Only 2% of respondents living in remote areas cited such environmental concerns over having (more) children.

Participants in focus groups and interviews reported existence of gendered barriers whereby women may feel more pressure than men to have a successful and stable career before they become parents or have subsequent children. There was a view that women may have concerns that having a family could end their prospects of progression, while this is not a concern for men. This may be one of the reasons for trends of delayed parenthood.


Questions around what would enable people to achieve their ideal family size were not asked in the quantitative survey, so main enablers were identified in the focus group discussions and in-depth interviews. However, in some sections we use the percentages drawn from the survey to add more information on each enabler.

Participants were asked to comment on what could be better, and make it easier, for people to have the number of children they want. Most suggestions came from participants who were already parents. The analysis revealed three major categories of enablers: financial, workplace related and social.

Financial support was the factor most likely to be mentioned in the focus groups and in-depth interviews. Rapid increases in energy and food prices were mentioned extensively in discussions. Being financially better off was most frequently identified as an enablers to have (more) children. While participants from all categories (all Social Economic Groups (SEG) and those with/without children) said this was the case, this was most strongly expressed by those in lower SEGs and with no children. Related to financial concerns, participants discussed how an increase in government-funded early learning and childcare provision would also enable people to have children, as childcare was seen as a great expense, especially among those who were already parents. Extending early learning and childcare provision to children under three was also highlighted in the discussions.

Housing was also identified as an enabler to achieve ideal family size in the focus groups. The cost of buying a house was mentioned as a deterrent to starting a family. Government-backed buying schemes were seen by some as supporting people to have their ideal family size. This was also reflected in the survey data with 59% of private tenants reporting not having any children, and 34% of them saying that having no children was their ideal family size. In the case of local authorities and housing association tenants, an increase in social housing and a consequent reduction in waiting lists to access housing was viewed by some focus group participants as a positive enabler. We can see some reflections of this in the survey data, where 45% of local authorities and housing association tenants reported two children as their ideal number while only around 29% reported this as their actual family size.

Workplace adjustments and more flexibility around childcare and work-life balance were identified in focus groups as key elements to help people with their family planning. There were also calls for maternity leave to be more generous in terms of the amount of time during maternity leave when mothers receive full pay. Some focus group participants viewed paternity leave entitlement as being insufficient. It was suggested that entitlement for both maternity and paternity leave should be more consistent across organisations, giving workers the same rights regardless of where they work.

Scotland was recognised by the focus groups as a place that values families and the generous benefits package for families was put as an example of this. Benefits and incentives such as the Baby Box and the Scottish Child Payment were praised although the benefits system was identified as needing to be significantly improved to allow more working parents to access free childcare.



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