Behavior

Women Spending Fewer Years in Marriage

It took months for one girlfriend’s suitor to persuade her to get married. Another of my friends skipped marriage entirely and had two children on her own. Others married, had kids, and divorced, a status that seems unlikely to change for some as they age.  I married for the first time at 56.

These anecdotes, about a random group of baby boomer women in the Boston area, illustrate some of the ways that women over the past half century have dramatically reduced the time they spend as part of a married couple.

middle boomer marriage decline chartA new study being released today by the Center for Retirement Research at Boston College finds that “middle boomer” women born in the late 1950s can expect to spend no more than half of their adult lives (starting at age 20) in marriage.  That share was closer to three-fourths for the mothers of baby boomers.

The researchers measured this dramatic change and its underlying causes – namely delayed wedlock, permanent singlehood, and divorce – across four cohorts of women who participated in a survey of older Americans.

Between the oldest group (born in 1931-41) and the youngest group (born in 1954-59), the average age of first marriage has increased by nearly three years, while the share of women who have never married tripled to 12 percent.  The share who’ve divorced also rose, from one-third to one half, according to the center, which sponsors this blog.

The change has been even starker for black women: the share of their adult lives spent in marriage declined from 54 percent of the oldest group to just 32 percent of middle boomers.  Divorce is a contributing factor, but the primary reason is that black women are much more likely to fall into the “not married” category than in the past.  In fact, the not married group is now larger than the married group.

This trend has many implications, not the least of which are financial.

Women used to be viewed, accurately, as part of a household, with women often benefitting from the contributions of a higher-earning husband.

These days, women increasingly find that they are on their own financially.  Since women typically earn less than men, live longer, and are the primary caretakers of children and elderly parents, this is a difficult challenge.

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3 Responses to Women Spending Fewer Years in Marriage

  1. PAM BRAUER says:

    Repeal WEP & GPO! An American widowed woman who teaches in Missouri should not have to retire in poverty! WEP takes half of my earned Social Security and the Government Pension Offset takes all of my survivor benefits! My deceased husband contributed over $90,000 into Social Security plus money into his Medicare account! Where does his money (my survivor benefit) go??? These 2 outdated laws are screwing with women!

  2. John Dewey says:

    Kim,

    Isn’t the biggest difference for women between our generation and our parent’s generation due to women’s liberation? Our mothers really had no choice but to stay married. Even those who worked were mostly employed in low skilled jobs and could not afford to live independently with children. Our mothers were not engineers or electricians or business owners. Hurray for Boomer women who changed it all!

    All that said, I still know Boomer women who chose not to pursue careers until they were forced to by divorce or widowhood. I believe that to be the main reason why Boomer women as a whole are not financially prepared for retirement when they become unmarried seniors. Too many just left the workplace for way too long and didn’t gain the skill-building experience their male colleagues did.

    The main advice I would give to younger women – actually, that I have given to younger women – is to not count on someone else for your financial security. And, if married, get involved in planning for your financial future and managing your household’s financial assets.

  3. Irina Sachelarie says:

    This trend very much rings true in my community, or rather in the group of people that I have observed within my circle (work, neighbors, friends, etc.). At least 50% of women that I have met that have married, are divorced (including myself), 2 of my friends whom are physicians, decided that at 40 they would not be able to find anyone and had children on their own via invitro fertilization. Also, in the offices and educational environments that I have been exposed to, overwhelmingly African American women are single with children. Society is more and more inclined to allow more freedom for women to choose a life of their own, rather than being trapped in an unhappy or abusive marriage. Also, the media affects men significantly in that they portray women as objects and as having to fit a perfect image, if that is not the case then the women are not desirable. This leaves many women out of the picture, or men no longer desire women after women reach a mature age. More research needs to be developed in this area, to determine the long term consequences and also to address the pay disparity between men and women. Obama tried without success to pass equal pay laws. I am uncertain as to why women did not stand up “en masse” for the laws to be in effect. Hopefully as more women get into the workforce and we replace men in the higher positions, we can enforce the notion that women should be paid equally as men are.