Retirement Security Is Up for Single Women, Down for Their Married Counterparts, Study Shows

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  • In the last 50 years, working women have made strides in wages and savings compared to previous generations.
  • For single women born in the early 1960s, retirement security as measured by an income-replacement rate is 33%, compared with 35% for married women.
  • However, their married heterosexual counterparts have seen their retirement security decline because their husband's fortunes have suffered, the research shows.

When it comes to retirement security for women, marriage may not give them the leg up it once did.

Women who have spent the majority of their adult life single — whether due to divorce or never marrying — are now generally as well prepared for retirement as married heterosexual couples, according to a study from the Center for Retirement Research at Boston College. 

"Women have made a lot of progress over the last 50 years," said Laura Quinby, one of the researchers for the study. "They've made enormous strides in the labor market, are more likely to get a college degree and have careers."

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Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972 ushered in mandated gender equity in education programs or activities that received federal financial assistance. While the law is often associated with advances in women's sports, it also contributed to more females going to college and into better-paying professions they previously may have been unable to access.

For example, the share of baby boomer women born in the early 1960s who hold a college degree is about 33%, compared with 15% among females born in the 1930s, the research shows. 

For married women, it's a different story

However, part of the increased parity in retirement security is due to a decline in such security among married women, Quinby said.

That's tied to the stagnating fortunes of men married to women, with the Great Recession hitting them harder than their female counterparts, the researchers say. For those who were in their prime working years, high unemployment and slow wage growth affected their ability to save for retirement.

"It's really reflecting the impact that the Great Recession had on their husbands," Quinby said.

The amount of wealth held at age 59-60 by a typical married woman's household has decreased 23% to $446,000 from $579,000 for those born in the 1930s. For single women, it has jumped about 28% to $290,000 from $227,000.

While those amounts are far apart, the researchers translated the wealth into a retirement-income replacement rate for single and married women — that is, the share of earnings from their working years that will be covered by Social Security and their savings.

Among baby boomer women who were born after the mid-1950s who have spent their adult life mostly married, that income-replacement rate is 35%, down from 44% among those born in the 1930s. For those who have been mostly single, the rate is 33%.

At the same time, retirement security overall peaked for "war babies" (those born in 1942-1947), Quinby said.

"It's primarily driven by the fact that wealth in defined contribution plans [i.e., 401(k) plans] is lower than the wealth in pension plans used to be for those older cohorts," she said.

1 in 5 women 'very confident' of retiring with enough

Meanwhile, only 1 in 5 women feels "very confident" of being able to retire comfortably, according to a study from the Transamerica Center for Retirement Studies. More than half say they have too much debt or not enough income to save much, and 4 in 10 expect to retire after age 70, or not at all.

Additionally, there is still a "wage gap." In 2022, women earned an average of 82% of what men earned, according to a new Pew Research Center analysis.

And, whether the retirement security gains by single women will continue is questionable.

"A lot of the gains that women made have largely played out," Quinby said. "Absent any structural change, I think we won't see the gains we have in the past."

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