(February 2014) The U.S. baby-boom generation – those born between 1946 and 1964 – is the largest generation in American history and a major force in the country’s demographic future. And given that 33 percent of these baby boomers are single, they may face economic, social, and health disadvantages because they aren't married.1

The Single Life in Later Life

Researchers from Bowling Green State University's Center for Family and Demographic Research have looked at the marital status of baby boomers. Using U.S. census data covering nearly four decades, I-Fen Lin and Susan Brown identified a steady increase in the proportion of unmarried adults ages 45 to 63—rising from 22 percent to 34 percent between 1980 and 2009. Longer female life expectancy means that many married women will become widows. As a result, women typically spend more time being single, although this gender gap has declined dramatically since 1980. In 2009, 31 percent of men and 37 percent of women ages 45 to 63 were unmarried, a 50 percent decline in the gender gap from 1980, when 16 percent of men and 27 percent of women ages 45 to 63 were unmarried. Today, different trends are shaping the high numbers of people who are single in middle-age and later.

To Marry or Divorce?

The baby-boom generation came of age during a period of tremendous family change: Divorce rates climbed to record highs during the 1970s, cohabitation and nonmarital childbearing increased rapidly, and more people chose to never marry.

Compared to other generations, baby boomers are much more likely to be divorced. In fact, in 2009, over 58 percent of unmarried baby boomers were single through divorce.2 These divorces don’t always occur when people are young. In 2010, roughly 25 percent of all divorces occurred to people ages 50 and older.3

Additionally, a growing share of middle-aged and older adults simply never married—32 percent in 2009.4 U.S. Census Bureau researchers Rose Marie Kreider and Renee Ellis identified a threefold increase between 1986 and 2009 in the proportion of non-Hispanic white women ages 50 to 54 who never married, and a fourfold increase for black women.5

Are Unmarried People at a Disadvantage?

A substantial amount of research links marriage with successful aging, and suggests that unmarried individuals are disadvantaged.

In 2009, nearly 20 percent of unmarried baby boomers were poor, compared with only 4 percent of married baby boomers. In fact, the average yearly household income for unmarried baby boomers in 2009 was $57,000, nearly half of the $106,000 average annual income for married households.6

And although disability is rising among all middle-aged Americans, twice as many unmarried baby boomers, particularly those whose spouses died, report a disability compared with married baby boomers (22 percent vs. 11 percent, respectively). Unmarried baby boomers are also less likely to have health insurance.7

As people age, family members become a vital source of support. Single baby boomers are more likely to live alone, without children or partners to care for them.

New Sources of Support for Singles

As the baby-boom generation ages, the larger numbers of single baby boomers will pose new challenges for existing programs and policies. New sources of support could include more shared and communal housing, offering support and social connections that family members would typically provide. And community and activity groups may help unmarried baby boomers stay connected and healthy.


Lori M. Hunter is an associate professor of sociology, Institute of Behavioral Science, Programs on Population, Environment and Society, at the University of Colorado, Boulder. She is also editor-in-chief of Population and Environment. This article is part of PRB's CPIPR project, funded by a grant from the Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development. Hunter is liaison from the University of Colorado's Population Center to CPIPR. Other NICHD-funded researchers who are highlighted in this article are Susan L. Brown and I-Fen Lin of Bowling Green State University’s Center for Family and Demographic Research.


References

  1. Susan L. Brown and I-Fen Lin, "The Gray Divorce Revolution: Rising Divorce Among Middle-Aged and Older Adults, 1990‐2010," The Journals of Gerontology, Series B: Psychological Sciences and Social Sciences 67, no. 6 (2012): 731-41.
  2. I-Fen Lin and Susan L. Brown "Unmarried Boomers Confront Old Age: A National Portrait," The Gerontologist 52, no. 2 (2012): 153-65 (doi: 10.1093/geront/gns038).
  3. Brown and Lin, "The Gray Divorce Revolution."
  4. Lin and Brown, "Unmarried Boomers Confront Old Age."
  5. Rose Marie Kreider and Renee Ellis, "Number, Timing, and Duration of Marriages and Divorces, 2009," Current Population Reports P70-125 (2011), accessed at www.census.gov/prod/2011pubs/p70-125.pdf, on Jan. 25, 2014.
  6. Lin and Brown, "Unmarried Boomers Confront Old Age."
  7. Lin and Brown, "Unmarried Boomers Confront Old Age."