As the US population ages, older adults are the fastest growing age group of people who cohabitate (or live in an unmarried intimate domestic relationship). Despite this, most of the research on cohabitation and remarriage is on younger adults. A recent article in Demography is the first longitudinal, nationally representative study of cohabitation and remarriage among older adults in the US.
The author uses data from the longitudinal Health and Retirement Study (HRS), a nationally representative sample of over 26,000 community-dwelling older adults. Data is collected every two years for the HRS, and includes demographic information (including age, race, and education), economic information, and information on marriage and partnering history. The author utilizes data from HRS participants age 50 and better who were single at some time during the study to examine two major theories of opposite-sex partnering:
- The independence hypothesis, which posits that women with fewer economic resources are more likely to marry, while men with greater economic resources are more likely to marry; and
- The theory of marriage timing, which suggests that marriage is more likely when both men and women have great resources.
While couples may have specific, personal reasons for whether or not they marry, the above theories are used to understand large-scale patterns of social behavior. Applying them to an older adult, single population might help researchers understand partnering behaviors of older adults during a time of significant demographic and social change.
During the period of study, about one in every eight of the single participants either remarried or began cohabitating. Men did so in greater proportion than women (as many partnered with younger women), and younger older adults did so in greater proportion than the oldest within the sample.
The study found that both men and women of greater wealth were more likely to repartner, rather than stay single, but that financial wealth did not increase participants’ chances of marrying rather than cohabiting. Among older men within the sample, however, greater housing wealth increased the likelihood that they entered marriage over cohabitation. Greater financial assets, however, did not affect the likelihood of these men marrying rather than cohabitating. This lack of a relationship between wealth and marriage (within individuals in a partnership) among older adults is in contrast to partnering among younger adults, for whom greater wealth predicts a greater chance of marriage instead of cohabitation. This study contributes some useful initial findings on patterns of marriage and cohabitation between older men and women.
Vespa J. Union formation in later life: economic determinants of cohabitation and remarriage among older adults. Demography. (2012). DOI 10.1007/s13524-012-0102-3