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The Demography Of Widowhood

In the United States in 1998, there were nearly 13,600,000 widowed persons (U.S. Bureau of the Census web site). Widows and widowers represent almost seven percent of the American population aged 18 and older (although approximately 5,000 widowed persons are under age 18). But widowhood is highly age-linked, of course; virtually one-third (actually 32.5 percent) of the population age sixty-five and older consists of widowed persons. And this estimate is at a single point in time, meaning that a relatively small number of widowed persons who have remarried, and a much larger number of persons who are currently married but will be widowed in the future, are not counted as widowed. Widowhood is a very common experience in the life cycle of contemporary Americans, as it is in other societies as well.

Widowhood is strongly connected to gender. In 1998, the latest year for which data are currently available, 2.7 percent of all men aged 18 and older, and 14.9 percent of all men age sixty-five and older and were widowed. For women, 10.8 percent of those 18 and over and 45.2 percent of those sixty-five and over were widowed. The percentage widowed rises dramatically with age for both sexes, but there is a remarkable sex difference even among the oldest: 42.0 percent of men 85 and over, and 77.4 percent of women in that age category, were widowed as of 1998 (U.S. Bureau of the Census web site).

Women are more likely than men to be widowed for two reasons. First, women live longer than men. As of 1997, life expectancies at birth were 73.6 years for men and 79.4 years for women. At age 65, men could expect another 15.9 years of life on the average, while women lived an average of 19.2 more years (Anderson, 1999). In addition, women tend to marry older men, although this gap has been narrowing. In 1998 median ages at first marriage were 26.7 years for men and 25.0 for women, for an average difference of 1.7 years. But fifty years ago, at a time when many of today’s widowed persons were marrying, median ages at marriage were much lower and the sex difference was greater. In 1950 men married at an average (median) age of 22.8, and women at 20.3, reflecting an average difference of 2.5 years. Because women live longer and marry older men, their odds of being widowed are much greater than men’s.

The sex difference in the probability of widowhood is the primary factor driving the difference in the number of older men and women who are unmarried. In 1998 there were 3,363,000 unmarried men age sixty-five and older; at the same time there were 10,581,000 unmarried older women (U.S. Bureau of the Census web site). This greatly influences the probability of remarriage for widowed persons. While rates of remarriage are much lower among the widowed than the divorced, remarriage rates are much higher among older widowers (about 14 per 1000 per year) than widows (approximately 2 per 1000 per year)(U.S. Bureau of the Census, 1996). Remarriage rates are lower for women in large part because there are so few available men in the appropriate age ranges. This is exacerbated by the fact that older widowed men who remarry frequently marry younger women, while marriages of older women to younger men are much less common. Nonetheless, remarriage is uncommon among widowed persons, particularly when they are widowed late in life.

For several decades the proportion of our elderly population living alone has been increasing, especially among the oldest old (U.S. Bureau of the Census, 1996). This change has been driven largely by widowed persons. In 1998 about 17 percent of older men and 41 percent of older women lived alone. This sex difference, however, is due almost entirely to the sex difference in the probability of widowhood; most older men (72.6 percent) are married and living with their spouses, while only 40.7 percent of older women are similarly situated. Among the widowed, men and women are almost equally likely to live with other family members (25.6 percent and 28.1 percent respectively) or alone (66.6 percent and 70.1 percent, respectively)(U.S. Bureau of the Census web site). Men are more likely than women to live with nonrelatives.

The probability of widowhood varies substantially by many factors other than sex. Widowhood is considerably more common among blacks than whites in the contemporary United States. As of 1998, 14.1 percent of white males and 44.5 percent of white females age sixty-five or older were widowed. For blacks the comparable percentages were 24.7 percent and 54.4 percent for men and women, respectively. This is true in spite of the fact that blacks are also more likely than whites to be both never-married and divorced. In consequence, many fewer elderly blacks than whites are married. Less than one-quarter (24.3 percent) of elderly black women are married, compared to 44.5 percent of elderly white women.

While widowhood is a common, and indeed statistically ‘‘normal,’’ experience for older persons and especially older women, a slightly smaller proportion of our elderly population is widowed today than was the case several decades ago. As noted above, in 1998 14.9 percent of all men and 45.2 percent of all women age sixty-five and over were widows. In 1960 the comparable percentages were 18.8 percent for men and 52.9 percent for women. The decrease in the proportion of the elderly population that is widowed is attributable to two factors: (1) increasing life expectancies, meaning that more people enter old age with their marriages still intact; and (2) the increasing prevalence of divorce. Since 1960 the percentages of older people who are divorced have increased from 1.6 percent for men and 1.5 percent for women to 6.3 percent for men and 6.7 percent for women (U.S. Bureau of the Census, 1996). The Census Bureau predicts that the proportion of the elderly population that is widowed will continue to decrease for these reasons, reaching 13.4 percent for men and 36.9 percent for women by 2050.

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