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An Unmarried Boomer

The growing number of middle-aged singles has significant implications, say two Bowling Green professors
  • February 06 2012

As Baby Boomers age, their propensity for divorce—even in later age—is creating a generation of middle-aged unmarrieds. Now, as the first Boomers are turning 65, this “singlehood” trend could have implications for the quality of life of these older Americans.

I-Fen Lin and Susan Brown, sociology professors at Bowling Green State University in Ohio, will soon publish “Unmarried Boomers Confront Old Age: A National Portrait,” a paper examining this trend, in the peer journal The Gerentologist. We spoke with Lin and Brown about their findings.


You’re examining the intersection of two Census trends: aging Baby Boomers and the decline in the marriage rate. What did you find out about unmarried Baby Boomers?


Unmarried Baby Boomers are common—one in three Boomers is unmarried. This figure represents a dramatic increase from just 30 years ago, when only one in five people in the 45 to 63 age category was unmarried. It’s important to point out that not only has the share of unmarrieds increased among the middle aged, but their marital status composition has also changed. Historically, unmarrieds were primarily widowed or divorced. Today, the majority is divorced or never married; only 10 percent are widowed. Unmarried Boomers don’t fare as well as married Boomers, on average. They are four times as likely to be poor. And, they are twice as likely to report having disabilities as married Boomers.


Are there differences between how older men and older women experience “singlehood”?


Unmarried women are somewhat more disadvantaged than unmarried men, at least in terms of financial security. They have lower average incomes and more likely to depend on public assistance than men despite having higher levels of education. Unmarried women are especially likely to reside with a child whereas unmarried men are disproportionately likely to live alone or with a cohabiting partner.


What other segments should we think about behaviorally?


In general, unmarried Baby Boomers face greater economic, health, and social vulnerabilities compared to married Boomers. More importantly, we shouldn’t treat unmarried Boomers as a homogenous group. Our study shows that widowed and never-married Boomers have fewer economic resources and poorer health than divorced Boomers. Widows appear to be the most disadvantaged among Boomer women, whereas never-marrieds are the least advantaged among Boomer men.


If more older-Americans are living alone, where will they turn for support and social interaction?


We found that nearly three out of five unmarried Boomers live alone. But about one quarter of them have a resident child. And, nearly 10 percent of unmarried Boomers live with a cohabiting partner. Cohabitation among middle aged and older adults appears to operate as a long-term alternative to marriage, offering many of the benefits of marriage without the legal constraints. Cohabiting partners function as a key source of social support and social interaction. Additionally, older unmarried adults may seek some forms of social support from people they are dating. Finally, older unmarried adults are more likely than older married adults to count on their siblings, friends, neighbors, and coworkers for support or rely on formal sources of support.


What are the implications of this phenomenon? Should it change the way marketers communicate with middle aged Americans?


Although most Boomers are married, marketers should recognize that an increasing number of middle-aged Americans are unmarried and this trend will likely persist over time. In particular, the vast majority of these unmarrieds is either divorced or never-married. Thus, when communicating with middle-aged Americans, marketers should not assume that they have a spouse and may want to illustrate how their products or services will be useful to single Boomers.


So will we be seeing a rush of marriages and dating sites targeted at older Americans?


We expect to see an increase in dating sites targeted at older Americans but not a rush to the altar by unmarried Boomers. In 2011, the leading edge of the 76 million Baby Boom generation began turning age 65 and each day for the next 20 years, roughly 10,000 Boomers will experience this milestone. Baby Boomers are a distinctive cohort characterized by higher average levels of education and wealth accumulation. They are also unique in their lifestyle, embracing individualism and free spiritedness more than previous generations. Thus, older unmarried Boomers are more likely to choose nontraditional partnerships such as cohabitation, dating, and living-apart-together than (re)marriage. Dating sites may need to tailor their services to older unmarried Boomers’ unique needs, which are likely to be very different from younger adults.


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