A significant number of single baby boomers will enter old age with no spouse or children to care for them, according to new research from the National Center for Family and Marriage Research (NCFMR) at Bowling Green State University (BGSU).

The demographic shift will present obvious challenges to aging baby boomers. But it will also put a strain on aging services organizations that find themselves providing long-term services and supports without help from family caregivers.

A Growing Single Population

After analyzing data from the 1980, 1990 and 2000 U.S. Census and the 2009 American Community Survey, BFSU researchers concluded that the number of single, middle-aged individuals has risen by 50% since 1980, when just 20% of middle-aged Americans were unmarried. 

Writing in The Gerontologist, researchers report that:

  • One-third of adults aged 45-63 are currently unmarried. 
  • One in 3 single baby boomers has never been married.
  • Only 10% of unmarried boomers are widowed.

"Researchers and policy makers can no longer focus on widowhood in later life and should pay attention to the vulnerabilities of the never-married and divorced as well," said Dr. I-Fen Lin, a BGSU assistant professor of sociology who co-authored the study with Dr. Susan Brown, co-director of NCFMR.

Population Characteristics

Several characteristics set unmarried baby boomers apart from their married counterparts and add to their vulnerability, according to researchers. 

Generally, these single boomers are:

  • Predominately women, non-white and in poor health.
  • Twice as likely as married boomers to have disabilities.
  • Less likely than married boomers to have health insurance. 

On the economic front, single boomers generally have fewer economic resources than their married counterparts. One in 5 lives in poverty, compared to 1 in 20 married boomers. Nearly a quarter of single boomers say they receive food stamps or other public assistance, compared to 6% of married boomers.

More Challenges for the Never-Married

Boomers who have never married face particularly onerous challenges on both the financial and health fronts, according to Lin and Brown. 

These individuals generally have fewer economic resources and poorer health than single boomers who are divorced. Equally important, never-married boomers face the prospect of having no spouse or offspring to support them as they age. 

This dearth of potential caregivers could also present challenges for providers of long-term services and supports, according to the authors.

“These shifting family patterns portend new strains on existing institutional supports for the elderly,” says Brown. “As more singles enter older adulthood, we as a society may have to reconsider how we care for frail elders. The family may no longer be a viable option for an increasing segment of older adults."