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

Annex A – Family Formation Survey Overview (Quantitative Survey)

(Quantitative Survey)[7]


As one component delivered to update the evidence base in this area, a quantitative survey ran from 18 November 2021 until 3 December 2022, involving the collection of information from a random sample of the adult population in Scotland (total sample size 1,144). Although the sample was representative of and weighted according to the population of Scotland, it should be noted that the sample sizes were small for people living on islands and the youngest age group (18-29). In some instances, responses of these groups were suppressed due to the small sample size. The survey was designed to provide reliable and up-to-date information on the choices, attitudes, and motivations of Scottish adults with regards to family planning.

Participants were asked the following set of questions:

1. How many children do you currently have?

2. Personally, what do you think would be the ideal number of children for you to have had during your lifetime?

3. How many (more) children in total do you think you will end up having during your lifetime?

4. Total number of children expected to have.

5. Which of the following are the main reasons you do not think you will have (any more) children?

Questions on family planning were asked of the full sample, with the exception of some follow-up questions (e.g. regarding reasons for not having any or more children, as this was only asked to respondents who indicated either one of these). Where a question was not asked to the full sample this is highlighted in the report, and where the response rate for the question was low this is not included in the analysis.

With the above taken into account, the specific objectives of the quantitative study were to:

  • Establish people's preferences and attitudes on their ideal family size, and how this relates to the size of family that they either already have or expect to have
  • Explore whether any demographic characteristics, such as gender, age, relationship status and others, have an effect on these preferences and attitudes
  • Identify main reasons for limiting family size – whether that is not having any children, or not having more children

All sub-group comparisons in this report have been tested for statistical significance. Therefore, any comparisons highlighted in the report are statistically significant unless otherwise stated.

It should be noted that it is difficult to know whether ideal and expected family size has fallen in Scotland in more recent years, as data available prior to conducting this survey is outdated and has not been collected at a national level since 2005. The existing data also lacks a nuanced discussion on why an individual would like a certain number of children, and how these reasons change through life stages. This emphasises a large research/data gap to be filled by this survey and the focus group study in order to understand attitudes towards family planning and ideal family size in in Scotland.

Key Findings from the Quantitative Study

Family Formation in Scotland

Table A.1 below shows the average current, expected and ideal number of children in Scotland, as well as a percentage breakdown. The results of the survey showed that people in Scotland are more likely to not have any children currently, or to have two children. A third of respondents reported having no children (32%), followed by those with two children (29%), one child (16%), three children (13%) and four or more children (9%). The average current number of children is 1.69.

The average ideal number of children in Scotland is 2.08. Almost half of respondents reported wanting two children (45%), followed by those who wanted three children (18%). Sixteen percent of respondents did not want any children at all. This is substantially higher than the current average family size of 1.69.

The results show that a third of respondents planned to, or expected to have, two children during their lifetime (33%), followed by respondents who expected to have no children (21%). The least common answer was one child (13%). Even though the majority (77%) of respondents indicated they are not planning to have more or any children, the average expected family size (2.02) is significantly higher than the current average family size (1.69). This shows that family planning expectations amongst respondents compared to their current family size were directed towards expansion.

Table A.1: Current, Expected and Ideal Family Size in Scotland
Current Expected Ideal
All (population) 1.69 2.02 2.08
Percent Breakdown
1 child 16 13 7
2 children 29 33 45
3 children 13 14 18
4+ children 9 18 13
None 32 21 16

Fertility Gap

The results show that the mean fertility gap in Scotland is 0.39 for ideal-current family size, and 0.06 for ideal-expected family size. Table A.2 summarises the results.

There is a noticeable gap between the current and ideal number of children reported by the respondents, but fertility gap between ideal and expected number of children is very narrow. However, although the ideal-expected gap is closely aligned, breakdown by different sub-groups shows a more complex picture. This is discussed in greater detail in the section below.

Table A.2: Fertility Gap in Scotland ( CI 95%)
Mean Lower Upper
Ideal-current Gap 0.39 0.31 0.46
Ideal-expected Gap 0.06 -0.02 0.14

The closest match between ideal-expected family size was for adults who expected to have two children: 76% of these respondents also viewed two children as the ideal number. Sixty-one percent of respondents who expected to have no children said this was the ideal number.

Fertility gap was even higher for respondents who expected to have one child – just under half of them (48%) viewed two children as ideal. Only around a third of respondents (32%) who ideally wanted one child were expecting to achieve their ideal family size.

Factors Influencing Family Size

Further statistical analysis was conducted to understand the fertility gap between the current, expected and ideal number of children across different groups of respondents. The evidence suggests that a range of factors could shape an individual's ideal or expected family size. Understanding these factors in regard to explaining how ideal and expected family sizes are decided upon by individuals is important for informing policy development to ensure that individuals have the opportunity to reach their ideal family size.

The core factors influencing ideal-expected fertility gap identified in the survey were age and relationship status. There was no significant difference in fertility gap between male and female respondents. Employment and income status were not found to be statistically significant factors affecting the fertility gap among respondents.

1. Age

The results showed that age was a significant factor affecting the fertility gap. Fertility gap (ideal-expected) appeared to be similar across all age groups, except for the youngest. Around a third of respondents aged 18-29 expected to have two children (31%), which is in line with other age groups (between 32% and 36% of respondents in the remaining groups expected to have two children). However, respondents in the youngest age group were significantly more likely to expect no children at all (43%). Around a third (36%) of the youngest age group reported ideally not having any children.

The mean expected family size for respondents aged 18-29 is 1.27, which is significantly lower than other age groups. For the youngest group, those who preferred having two children expected to have them as often (both 31%), having no fertility gap.

Table A.3: Ideal-expected Fertility Gap and Family Size in Scotland by Age
Current Expected Ideal Fertility Gap
Age Group
18-29 0.17 1.27 1.88 0.61
30-39 1.04 1.66 1.77 0.11
40-49 1.60 1.88 1.89 0.01
50-59 1.74 2.02 2.00 -0.02
60-69 1.80 2.06 2.17 0.11
70+ 2.15 2.39 2.37 -0.02

2. Relationship status

Partnership was another important factor determining expectations of family size and fertility gap. Single people have a significantly higher fertility gap than other groups. The majority of respondents who were single (63%) expected to have no children at all, but only a third (39%) of them viewed this as ideal. The mean ideal-expected fertility gap for this group is 0.78, which is significantly higher than what the total population had experienced (0.06 mean). Table A.4 below provides a breakdown of fertility gap estimates by group.

Table A.4: Ideal-expected Fertility Gap and Family Size in Scotland by Relationship Status
Current Expected Ideal Fertility Gap
Relationship Status
Married 1.96 2.30 2.20 -0.10
Living Apart 1.20 1.61 1.72 0.11
Separated/Divorced 1.90 2.19 2.13 -0.06
Widowed 1.76 2.02 2.22 0.20
Single 0.42 0.74 1.52 0.78

Overall, single respondents have a significantly smaller family size (0.42 on average) and a lower expected number of children (0.74 on average) than the total population (1.69 and 2.02 on average). The ideal family size is also somewhat lower for this group - 1.52 compared to 2.08 for the total population on average. Absence of a partner was a third most common reason for limiting family size identified in the survey (discussed in the next section).

Married, separated or divorced adults tended to have smaller fertility gaps compared to other groups. This variance shows that relational circumstances may generate distinct constraints, be it age, health, or any other factors that require further exploration in qualitative studies.

3. Gender

No significant differences in fertility gap were found across gender groups. Table A.5 below summarises the results. Men had a slightly smaller fertility gap, but the difference is not significant.

Overall, women were as likely as men to expect two children (34% and 33% respectively) and view this number as the ideal (45% of respondents in both groups). They were also as likely to prefer having no children at all (16% of respondents in both groups). However, it should be noted that men were slightly more likely to expect having no children at all than women (25% compared to 17%), but this difference is not statistically significant.

Table A.5: Ideal-expected Fertility Gap and Family Size in Scotland by Gender
Current Expected Ideal Fertility Gap
Male 1.74 2.08 2.11 0.03
Female 1.66 1.98 2.06 0.08

Reasons for Limiting Family Size

Respondents who indicated they would not have any or any more children were asked to give reasons why they chose this response option. Table A.6 below presents the five most common reasons for limiting family size.

Table A.6: Reasons for Limiting Family Size in Scotland
Percentage (%) of adults
Too old to have (more) children 53
Happy with the current number of children 37
Do not have a partner to have (more) children with 12
Cannot afford it 11
Health/medical reasons 10

1. Too old to have (more) children

The results showed that the main reason for limiting family size was age – over half of respondents (53%) said they felt like they were "too old" to have any or more children. It should be noted, however, that the results for the youngest age group are not included due to a small sample size, and the sample was skewed towards older age groups.

Old age was reported as a factor in limiting family size by the majority of 40-49, 50-59, 60-69, and 70+ year-olds (55%, 65%, 68%, and 66% respectively). That was not the case for respondents aged 30-39, with only 14% indicating old age as a reason for not having any or more children.

2. Happy with current number of children

Another major reason for not having any or more children was satisfaction with current family size – 37% of respondents reported being happy with the number of children they already have.

Certain age groups were more or less likely to report this a reason. Half of respondents aged 30-39 and 58% of those aged 40-49 were happy with their current family size. This factor was notably less important for older age groups, with less than half of respondents within those groups stating this as a reason for not having any (more) children.

Relationship status also made a difference. Single people were highly unlikely to report this a reason for not having any or more children (4%). It was also a less prominent factor for widowed respondents, or those who were the surviving partner (21%), than the remaining groups. Nearly half of respondents who were married or in civil partnership (46%), respondents who were living apart together (47%), and those who were separated or divorced (43%) stated this as a reason for not having any (more) children).

3. Do not have a partner to have (more) children with

Relationship status did have a notable impact on family planning. Half of single respondents reported choosing not to have any (more) children because they did not have a partner (51%). People who are single were also the most likely group to report never wanting children (17%) when compared to those married/in a civil partnership/ living with a partner; separated/divorced; and widowed/surviving partner.

In addition, those who are single were more likely (12%) than those who were separated/divorced (2%) and widowed/the surviving partner (0%) to consider that having (more) children will have a negative environmental impact. Respondents aged 30-39 were also twice to three times more likely (18%) to report environmental reasons for not having children than other age groups. Respondents aged 60-69 were the least likely group to report it as a reason (3%).

Those experiencing financial difficulties were also more likely to not have a partner to have children with (23% and 17% respectively) compared to those living comfortably (3%) and doing alright (11%).[8]

4. Cannot afford it

Financial constraints was another prominent factor in limiting family size. Not being able to afford to have (more) children was one of the core reasons given by respondents who were finding it difficult financially (27%), and they were the most likely group to provide this response. They were twice as likely to report not being able to afford (more) children than respondents who found it difficult to get by (13%) and thrice as likely than those who reported doing alright (9%).

Not being able to afford the cost of having (more) children was a prominent reason for respondents aged 30-39 (34%), but less so for older groups.

5. Health/medical reasons

Health and medical circumstances for not having (more) children were an important factor for respondents finding it financially difficult (22%) and just about getting by (15%). They were more likely than those living comfortably (3%) and doing alright (6%) to choose this option.

Health and medical circumstances were more important for younger age groups. It was most important to respondents aged 39-39 (27%), followed by those aged 40-49 (15%). Other age groups were unlikely to report health and medical circumstances as a reason for not having any or more children.

6. Negative impact on the environment

Finally, 9% of respondents stated that having more children would have a negative impact on the environment – which was the reason for them to not have any (more) children. Although environmental concerns were not among the most prominent reasons for limiting family size (listed in Table A.6), there are some notable trends that provide interesting insights.

Respondents aged 30-39 were the most likely group to be concerned with environmental impact. Eighteen per cent of respondents within this age group stated environmental concerns as a reason for not having any (more) children, compared to those aged 40-49 (9%), 50-59 (6%), 60-69 (3%), and 70+ (6%). Overall, environmental reasoning seems to become less important with older age, although it should be noted that it was not possible to obtain sufficient data on respondents aged 18-29 due to the small sample size.

Moreover, compared to those living in mainly rural and urban areas (8% and 6% respectively), respondents living in larger cities were substantially more likely to have environmental concerns as a reason for limiting family size (15%). Although the difference is not statistically significant, only 2% of respondents living in remote areas or the islands reported such environmental concerns over having (more) children.



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