The most incisive guide to issues facing the American family today . . . An invaluable resource for anyone wishing to stay on the cutting edge of research on family trends.

-W. Bradford Wilcox
Associate Professor of Sociology, University of Virginia 

Lonely Baby Boomers

Bryce J. Christensen and Nicole M. King

As America’s largest-ever generation approaches old age, sociologists are fretting over the unprecedented fraction of this huge cohort made up of divorced and never-married men and women. More particularly, a team of sociologists at Bowling Green State University is deeply anxious about what the future holds for these alarmingly numerous divorced and unmarried Baby Boomers, and they express their anxieties in a newly published study.

To establish the marital profile of the aging Baby Boom generation and then assess the likely social implications of that profile, the Bowling Green researchers pored over demographic, social, and economic data collected in the 1980, 1990, and 2000 U.S. Censuses and in the 2009 American Community Survey. These data identify a retreat from wedlock as one of the defining characteristics of the Baby Boom generation. The researchers report that “one in three Baby Boomers was unmarried” and that “the vast majority of these unmarried Boomers were either divorced or never-married.”

The numbers surveyed by the researchers indicate that “the percentage of adults aged 45–63 who were unmarried increased steadily over the past three decades, rising from 22% in 1980 to 34% in 2009.” Not only did unmarrieds grow as a fraction of the older population, but the type of unmarried also changed notably over this period. The 2009 numbers indicate that among unmarried Baby Boomers over half (58%) were divorced and almost one-third (32%) were never-married. The widowed accounted for only one-tenth (10%) of the unmarried Baby Boomers. In marked contrast, in 1980 less than half (45%) of the unmarried adults between the ages of 45 and 63 were divorced, and less than one-quarter (22%) were never married. The widowed then accounted for fully one-third of the older unmarried population.

The upward surge in the numbers of unmarried older Americans—especially in the numbers of divorced and never-married Americans—stirs deep concerns in the Bowling Green researchers. “Marital status,” they remark, “is one of the components of successful aging.” Failure to form an abiding marriage can mean unsuccessful aging: “Unmarrieds,” the researchers point out, “are a vulnerable population who face considerable social disadvantages compared to marrieds.”

Of course, the widowed share in many of the vulnerabilities characteristic of the unmarried. But the researchers recognize that, “in general, the widowed maintain stronger familial relationships than either the never-married or the divorced” and therefore enjoy “greater social support.” But with the divorced and never-married sharply rising and the widowed falling as fractions of the older unmarried population, a relatively small number of unmarried Baby Boomers can count on such support. What is more, the researchers recognize that “the inequalities associated with marital status can accumulate over the life course,” so that the never-married and those who are divorced relatively early in life “could experience greater disadvantage with age.” It is no wonder that the researchers view Baby Boomer unmarrieds as a population “at risk of lower health and well-being,” a population that may end up “straining existing institutional mechanisms that support the aged.” The researchers indeed fear that “health and social support deficits among unmarried Boomers could place a heavy burden on society in the near future.”

The researchers conclude their study appealing to “health care providers, social service agencies, and other forms of institutional support to ensure that all Boomers age well and that society is able to provide adequate services to all Boomers, regardless of marital status.” But this appeal is likely to strike tough-minded observers of the contemporary social scene in America as an empty piety so long as government leaders and cultural celebrities continue to undermine the moral principles essential to enduring wedlock.

(I-Fen Lin and Susan L. Brown, “Unmarried Boomers Confront Old Age: A National Portrait,” Gerontologist 52.2 [2012]: 153-165.)