Declining marriage rates in many societies, in particular among the poorer and disadvantaged population groups, has sparked growing interest. Current debates are often focused on whether the ‘failure’ to marry signifies deficiencies on the part of the individual, or insufficient societal resourcing of some groups to make them ‘marriageable’. Concerns are frequently expressed about old age being a grim prospect for the never-married, due to the lack of care and support from a spouse and adult children. In aggregate, such views and debates convey a negative picture of singlehood, and of unmarried people who are seen as especially problematic when they become old.
We examined these issues in Ireland, an especially interesting context, given the rapid and extensive changes in its demography over the last half century. We wanted to gain an understanding of the long-term processes involved in becoming and staying single until old age, and so we focused on older adults. The older adults who participated in our study were children and young adults in the Ireland of the 1940s, 1950s and 1960s, a context with high rates of singlehood, late marriage and high fertility. At the time of the interviews, however, they were aged 65 to 86 and lived in a country that had witnessed a radical decline in the prevalence of singlehood, higher marriage rates and much lower fertility than before. We undertook detailed biographical interviews with the participants to understand their personal motives and experiences with respect to their single status.
We believe that two key findings from our study are of broader relevance for researchers and others interested in understanding people who have never married. These findings have important implications which we also discuss.
First, it is important to note that for some (older) adults, singlehood is a deliberate choice. Moreover, for those who chose singlehood in the sense of wanting to remain single because it allowed them freedoms that marriage would have restricted, the single status in old age typically continues to be a status that they are satisfied with. In this group of ‘singles by choice’, we witness continuing enjoyment of the benefits of the single status, such as the ability to cultivate friendships and to spend one’s own money without having to negotiate with a partner. The older adults in this group did not harbour any major regrets about their life course, and had no interest in marrying in later life (although some were in ‘living apart together’ relationships).
For the second group of older adults in our study, singlehood had not been a choice; they would have preferred to marry when younger, but various socio-economic and cultural obstacles stood in their way. Some were simply too poor to be able to envisage supporting (or finding a partner who could support) the very large number of children that marriage in Ireland was until recently closely associated with. Others were constrained by the need to provide care to ageing parents and disabled relatives: work that could not be ‘contracted out’ in a context where social care provision was non-existent. The experience of old age was significantly different for these older adults who were ‘single by constraint’; they tended to regret the absence of a family of their own (older women in particular often remarked on the absence of a daughter who could care for them, and disclosed envy of peers who had grandchildren).
These findings are relevant for professionals working with older adults across several sectors, ranging from social care services to marketing. We should not assume that all never-married older adults see their marital status as a ‘failure’; rather, many relish the single status. It is important to try to understand whether the never-married status is seen as problematic or liberating by the individuals themselves. Where they express regrets, or feel the absence of close kin, sensitive guidance to possible new social activities and networks might be helpful. This might include contexts that are specifically tailored to enable the search for romantic partners among older adults. The fact that many of our participants who were ‘single by constraint’ were actively trying to find a partner in their old age, indicates that the wish for love, romance, perhaps even marriage, is for many older adults still ‘live’, and more realistic, in their 60s or 70s than it was in their earlier lives when relationship formation was constrained by poverty, care duties, and social norms. Virtually all dating services are aimed at young people; we would welcome the recognition that many single older adults consider finding a partner a realistic and desirable prospect. As one of our participants stated: “I’d like to meet somebody, have a little bit of life at the end of my life”. Indeed, why not?
Timonen, V. and Doyle, M. (2014) ‘Life-long singlehood: Intersections of the past and the present’, Ageing & Society 34(10): 1749-70.