Academic journal article Social Security Bulletin

The Never-Married in Old Age: Projections and Concerns for the near Future

Academic journal article Social Security Bulletin

The Never-Married in Old Age: Projections and Concerns for the near Future

Article excerpt

Summary and Introduction

Understanding how marital patterns affect the Social Security program and its beneficiaries has become an important policy and academic focus. Over the past several decades, a convergence of economic, demographic, and social changes has given rise to dramatic changes in marital trends in the United States. Divorce rates surged in the 1960s and 1970s, the age of first marriage has risen, and the number of persons never marrying has increased (Ruggles 1997; Goldstein 1999; Goldstein and Kenney 2001; Kreider 2005; Harrington Meyer, Wolf, and Himes 2006). Evidence also indicates that the remarriage rate has decreased, and dissolution of second marriages has risen (Cherlin 1992; Norton and Miller 1992). Put together, these trends suggest that a rising share of unmarried people will be entering retirement age in the near future.1

A growing body of economic, sociological, and demographic research has highlighted an association between marital status and adult well-being. A moderate-to-strong relationship has been found between marital status and an individual's economic resources (Waite and Gallagher 2000; Wilmonth and Koso 2002) as well as health profile (Schoenborn 2004). However, a comparatively small amount of the literature has focused specifically on the elderly population and differences among the unmarried elderly-individuals who have never married or are divorced or widowed- are even less examined. Among the unmarried, women who are widowed (Morgan 1992; Weaver 2002) or divorced (Weaver 1997; Butrica and Iams 2000) have received the majority of attention, while the never-married are often overlooked.

This article focuses on a growing yet understudied subgroup of the elderly in the United States: the never-married, meaning persons who have never been legally married or whose marriages ended in annulment. Its purpose is to assess how never-married persons fare during retirement-at present and as the large baby-boom generation retires.

Although never-?married retirees are not typical Social Security beneficiaries, they are by no means an insignificant population. In 2003, about 4 percent of Americans aged 65 or older, or 1.4 million individuals, had never married (He and others 2005, Table 6.1). Moreover, the share of retirement-age persons who have never married is projected to increase as the baby-boom cohort reaches retirement age (Easterlin, ?Schaeffer, and Macunovich 1993, 508-509; Butrica and Iams 2000, Table 1; Harrington Meyer, Wolf, and Himes 2004). The Urban Institute's DYNASIM3 model, for example, predicts that never-married persons will increase to around 6 percent of the retirement-age population by 2040 (Favreault and Smith 2004).

The projected growth of never-married retirees raises a number of important issues for retirement policy. Because Social Security spousal and survivor benefits are determined by marital history, changes in marital trends can have important implications for Social Security program costs and distributional outcomes among its beneficiaries.2 A rise in the share of persons entering retirement as never-married would, for example, contribute to a decline in individuals eligible to receive auxiliary benefits and, correspondingly, a rise in beneficiaries receiving only retired-worker benefits (see, for example, Harrington Meyer, Wolf, and Himes 2006). Another issue relates to the economic well-being of retirees. Although Social Security reform plans have given great attention to widows because of their greater likelihood of economic insecurity in old age (Weaver 2002), the never-married may also tend to experience a heightened risk of economic hardship in retirement.

The first section of the article, based on data from the Current Population Survey and a review of the academic literature, examines the current circumstances of never-married retirees, particularly characteristics of their economic and health well-being. The next section shifts focus to the near future. …

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