Solo? You're Not Alone
By Mary B. Young
Sometimes Solos feel like freaks. It’s a feeling that is rooted in age-old assumptions about what constitutes “normal” adulthood. Even school kids chant it on the playground:
“First comes love,
then comes marriage,
then comes baby in the baby carriage.”
But recent demographic data tell a different story.
How Many Older Adults Are Solo?
There’s no “perfect” way to measure the Solo population. The U.S. Census Bureau only collects data about the separate components of Solo-ness―marital status, childlessness, and living situation. Thus far, only AARP has combined these attributes into a single measure.
But first you need a clear definition of who you’re looking for. In the case of Solos, that can be muddled, given that there’s actually a continuum of Solo-ness. AARP finesses the issue in a clever way. It starts with the narrowest definition and then expands to include additional forms of Solo-ness. Here’s what they find:1
- Using the strictest definition of Solo, 12 percent of adults aged 50 and older are Solos. They live alone, are not married, or partnered in a long-term relationship, and have no living children.
- Expanding that definition slightly, 16 percent of older people are Solo if we add in those who live alone, do not have a spouse or long-term partner, do have children, but are estranged from them. (Estrangement is more common than most people think. One quarter of young adults are estranged from one or both of their parents, or have been, according to a recent study.2)
- Applying the broadest definition, Solos make up 23 percent of the older population. In addition to the members of the first two groups, this definition includes those who a.) live alone, b.) do not have a spouse or long-term partner, c.) do have one or more children and are not estranged from them, but d) do not think that at least one of their children has the physical or mental abilities to help manage their finances and health care.
But even these progressively expansive definitions have limitations. They overlook older adults who are, if not technically Solo, then functionally so. Take, for example, someone whose child or children live so far away that they couldn’t provide much support. Or the parent who believes their child would be ill-equipped for reasons other than a disability. Or a married adult whose spouse or partner lives in a nursing home and wouldn’t be able to provide any care or support.
What it comes down to is this: Solo-ness is best defined at the individual level, based on an individual’s unique circumstances. That why it’s so difficult to create an all-encompassing profile.
But there’s another way to get a handle on the size of the Solo population (although that, too, has its limitations). It’s to break down Solo-ness into its components: marital or partner status and childlessness.
Marriage Rates Are at an All-time Low
Since 1950, the number of unmarried adults (of all ages) in the U.S. has steadily climbed. It now approaches the number of married adults, as shown in the chart below.3
Declining marriages rates are a result of several factors: people wait longer to marry, divorce has increased, and women have become less financially dependent on men, which reduces their need to remarry. In fact, 53 percent of women aged 65 or older are unmarried, compared to just 30.4 percent of men the same age.4 (The fact that women generally outlive men is another contributing factor.)
Significantly more adults (of all ages) who identify as LGBTQ are unmarried (47 percent) compared to heterosexual adults (29 percent).5
As a result of these trends, marriage has come to play a much smaller role in women’s lives. Those who were born between 1931 and 1941 spent just 28 percent of their adult lives unmarried. By contrast, women born from 1954–1959 will spend over half (51 percent) of their adult years unmarried.6
Having Kids- or Not
Childlessness has also become a significant demographic trend. Looking back to 1976, just one in ten women nearing the end of their child-bearing years was childless (measured, in this case, as natural-born children). In 2018, the childlessness rate for this aged 40-44 group jumped to one in seven.7 In 2020, it was one in six.8
The rise in childlessness is also evident within the older population, as shown in the chart below. Among adults aged 55 and older, 15.2 million (16.5 percent) are childless. The younger the cohort, the higher the rate of childlessness. Among people aged 75 and older, 10.9 percent are childless, increasing to 15.9 percent of those 65-74 years old, and 19.6 percent of 55-to-64-year-olds.9
For LGBT adults aged 50 or older, childlessness is even more common. Nine out of ten do not have children, compared to two out of ten older adults who are heterosexual.10
Oddballs No More
Solos have reached critical mass. Although popular perceptions are still catching up to reality, there’s no need to feel self-conscious about being Solo today, or to shy away from making sound plans for your future.
Many Solos face similar dilemmas: How can I be sure that my money will last as long as I do? Whom can I ask to be my emergency contact or to serve as my health care proxy? Whom could I trust to become my durable power of attorney, if needed?
When you’re looking for help in planning, choose a professional who has experience working with Solos and understands their unique needs.
Mary Young holds a doctorate in organizational behavior. She is research director at Davis Financial Group, in Hadley, MA, where she writes and edits the firm’s newsletter, The Soloist.