Marina Adshade

Economist, Writer, and Speaker | Women, sex, love, and work

Who Will Take Care of You When You Are Old and Grey?

I’m single…and totally bored with articles complaining about the questions singles are asked by concerned friends and family (see for example, “I’m Single… and Totally Bored With These 5 Questions”). For several decades, the supposedly offending questions have not changed: Why aren’t you married? Are you being too picky? Are you gay? How will you take care of yourself when you are old and grey?

Of course, no one likes having to defend her or his personal situation; I wouldn’t like defending mine (although to be honest with you, no one ever seems to be that interested in asking me about my relationship status).

But, whether you like being asked or not, the last question is a good one—if you are single, with no intention of ever marrying, then what exactly is the long term plan? I don’t just mean in terms of who is going to take care of you when you can no longer take care of yourself, but how are you planning to afford old age?

A woman who is thirty years old today has a 29% chance of living beyond her 90th birthday and 12% chance of living beyond the age of 95. A man of the same age has an 18% chance of living beyond the age of 90 and a 5% chance of seeing his 95th birthday.

These predictions do not take into consideration the possibility that major medical advances will radically extend life expectancy, which given the time frame is likely; most of today’s nonagenarians never expected to live this long.

Every one of us, regardless of our martial status, needs to plan for the possibility that we will live for many decades after we have stopped working. But the need to plan for singles is much greater; not only are they more likely to find themselves buying the services (like housing) that a family might have otherwise provided, but they are likely to be buying those services on a much lower income.

Being married does not provide you with a guarantee that you will have someone to care for you when you are old (although, you have to admit the odds are much better than when you remain single), but being married makes it much easier to accumulate wealth over your lifetime.

Research has shown that the wealth level of married couples at the age of retirement is significantly higher than that of both single men and women, with single women heading into their sunset years with the lowest level of wealth—less than one third the wealth level of married couples.

And because married couples are able to accumulate more wealth, their income in retirement is also much higher. In fact, one study found that at the age of retirement single women could anticipate living on an average income of only $9,000 per year and single men on an income of $12,950 per year, compared with an annual average income of $29,000 for married couples.

Part of this discrepancy in wealth and income can be explained by differences in the earnings of married men and single men (married men earn more) and the gender wage gap.

The big difference, however, is that it is simply cheaper to live as a married couple than it is to live alone and that lower cost easily translates into higher savings for married couples. And, of course, it is also cheaper to live as a married couple post retirement, which means that married and unmarried seniors experience large differences in standard of living.

A couple of weeks ago Bloomberg wrote saying they were asking well known economists and financial experts to share their biggest financial mistake (you can see that article here). I told them that mine was staying single. Don’t get me wrong, there are benefits to not being married, but those benefits come at a high cost in terms of long-run financial well being.

Unless you already have a concrete plan, if are single and someone asks how you will take care of yourself when you are old and grey the answer really should be this: “I have no idea, I worry about that myself.”


Phillip J. Levine & Olivia S. Mitchell & John W. Phillips, 1999. “Worklife Determinants of Retirement Income Differentials Between Men and Women,” NBER Working Papers 7243.


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1 Comment

  1. yvg148

    A question might be whether this gap is getting better or worse. Equivalence scales have been used by Friedman, Engels, and others to answer that question. A Statscan paper in 2001 or so looked at 20-25 years of family income trends using equivalence scales. Have a look at it if you have a chance.

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