Lifelong Singles in Later Life: Stereotype-Defying Findings

Scare stories about old people who never marry are wrong, except for one.

Posted Mar 29, 2020

If you have only stereotypes and scare stories to go by, you know what your life is supposed to be like if you get to your golden years without ever having married. You are going to be utterly miserable and lonely.

Reality begs to disagree. More and more people are staying single for life, and social scientists are starting to learn what their lives are really like. They are finding that the cautionary tales about misery and loneliness may well be misplaced. It is not the lifelong single people who are especially likely to be struggling with those issues. In one other way, though, the lifelong single people, on the average, really are having a harder time than everyone else.

Every 10 years, the Journal of Marriage and Family publishes a collection of articles reviewing what we learned in the previous decade. This year, 2020, an article on “Families in later life” by Deborah Carr and Rebecca L. Utz, included a section on lifelong singlehood. It was brief, but important. Most of the findings I’m discussing here, along with the quotes, are from that review, though I have also added a few more findings (points 1, 2, and 7).

Two Ways Lifelong Singles Are Doing Really Well in Later Life, and One Way They Are Not

1. As people progress from mid-life through old age, those who stay single feel happier and happier with their lives.

As I discussed previously, a study of 40- to 85-year-olds showed that lifelong single people became increasingly satisfied with their lives as they grew older. The results for the people with romantic partners were not so straightforward.

2. Staying single pays off with lesser loneliness in old age.

The warning lobbed at single people most relentlessly is that if they stay single, they will end up hopelessly lonely. If you get married, the story goes, you will avoid that fate. The right way to test that is to compare the people who never got married to those who did marry, whether they stayed married or not. Fellow Psychology Today blogger Elyakim Kislev tested that prediction and reported his findings in Happy Singlehood.

At age 65, Kislev found, the lifelong single people were, in fact, a tiny bit lonelier than the people who had married — a difference of about one-quarter of 1 point on an 11-point scale. Over the course of their adult lives, though, more and more married people feel lonely. Kislev found that “the share of married people feeling lonely is around 50 percent more at age 60 than 30, and that it doubles by the age of 90.”

Meanwhile, the loneliness of lifelong single people increases much less. By age 70, it is the people who married who are now lonelier, and that continues all the way through the oldest of ages. The lifelong single people are less lonely. (The graph is on page 50 of Happy Singlehood.)

3. Lifelong single people are at much greater risk for financial insecurity in later life than married people.

This is one clear disadvantage facing those who stay single. For married people 65 and older, as of 2014, 4.5% were beneath the federal poverty line. For their never-married counterparts, nearly five times as many, about 22%, lived below the poverty line.

Carr and Utz point to a number of reasons for the financial burdens of lifelong single people:

  • They typically have just one income.
  • If they live alone, they don’t have the advantages of the economies of scale.
  • Social Security benefits are based “solely on single workers’ own income – despite the fact that they consistently earn less than their married counterparts.”

There are more ways that single people are massively disadvantaged financially. Economic discrimination against single people is written into many federal laws that benefit and protect only people who are legally married. As a result of these laws and policies, as well as other marketplace practices that favor couples, lifelong single people suffer huge cumulative penalties over the course of a lifetime.

For Lifelong Singles, Is Old Age Different for Women than for Men?

4. Older women who have been single all their lives are typically doing fine.

They “have physical and mental health on par with their married counterparts, reflecting their tendency to seek out and create meaningful relationships and families by choice,” the authors explain, citing my work.

5. Even though older lifelong single women are mostly doing fine, other people don’t believe them.

In their cohort, marriage was central to women’s lives, so these norm-busting women “bear the emotional labor of having to explain and account for their lifelong singlehood.”

6. Comparing lifelong single men to married or previously married men (rather than lifelong single women), in some ways, they do less well.

Carr and Utz suggest that their disadvantage may be attributable to having “fewer socioeconomic resources and poorer early life health.”

My own guess about lifelong single men (not from the review article) is that they are going to do better and better over time. More people are staying single longer, even if they eventually marry. That gives them more time to master the tasks of everyday life, rather than counting on a spouse to cover some of them. Also, as more people stay single, it should become less stigmatizing to be single. That will help, too.

7. In one important way, it is the lifelong single women who are doing worse than the lifelong single men: They are less secure financially.

For example, a study of marital biography and poverty among people in the U.S. who were 63 and older found that among lifelong single men, 13.6% had incomes (including Social Security) below the poverty level. For the lifelong single women, that number was almost twice as high: 25.3%. For men and women who were continuously married (never divorced or widowed or remarried), the poverty rate was just 3.4%.

Demographics: How Many People, 65 and Older, Have Been Single All Their Lives? How Many Will Be in the Future?

As of 2016, only a small number of adults in the U.S. who were 65 and older had been single all their lives – just a little over 5%.

However, that number is likely to increase significantly in the future. The authors cite a 2007 study that predicted that by 2060, 11% of all adults 65 and older, and close to 25% of black women, will be lifelong singles.

Other more recent research suggests that the overall percentage could be far higher than 11%. A 2014 Pew Report estimated that by the time today’s young adults reach the age of about 50, about 25% will have been single all their lives. Of course, some could still marry after the age of 50, but those numbers are likely to be small. Data from 2012 showed that for people 55 and older who had never been married, over a 12-month period, only 7 out of 1,000, or 0.7%, got married.

What’s Truly Remarkable

What's really remarkable is that lifelong single people – especially women – put up with a lifetime of economic disadvantages, enforced emotional labor, other people tut-tutting about how they are missing out, and all the other singlism and matrimania; and yet, as they sail into their 60s and beyond, they do just fine.

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