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  • According to a new study, the number of “kinless” older Americans will rise from 15 million in 2015 to approximately 21.1 million in 2060. Tweet This
  • Young adults facing decisions about romantic relationships, marriage, and parenthood may benefit from reflecting on the impending rise in kinlessness. Tweet This

My husband’s grandmother is in her eighties and almost blind, yet she has lived alone since the death of her husband in 2015. That’s possible largely because several of her sons and daughters live nearby, visit frequently, and happily take her to doctor’s appointments, the grocery store, church, and anywhere else she wants to go. On holidays, she can choose between hosting dozens of relatives for a potluck dinner or visiting one of her children. Her closest friend, the widow of one of her brothers, lives just across the street. Few seniors have access to such a strong network of support—and due to declines in marriage and fertility, it appears still fewer will enjoy it in the future.

According to a new study, the number of “kinless” older Americans—specifically, white and black individuals aged 50 or older without a living partner or children—will rise from 15 million in 2015 to approximately 21.1 million in 2060.1 To put that in perspective, kinlessness will be more widespread among older adults in 2060 than diabetes or Alzheimer’s will be in 2050 (21.1 million vs. 16.9 million and 13.8 million, respectively). More than 6 million of those individuals will not have living siblings or parents, either. Ashton M. Verdery and Rachel Margolis reached these figures using demographic microsimulation and recent Census projections, and their work was published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America.

The research Verdery and Margolis cite suggests that building a marriage and raising children often pay off in old age. For example, seniors with spouses and/or kids are less likely to spend time in a nursing home. As in the case of my husband’s grandma, that’s often because family members can provide many forms of assistance free of charge, enabling older people with limited disabilities to stay in their own homes. And feelings of loneliness, which are more common among those without a spouse or children, are linked to higher rates of physical decline and death among older people.

There are a few simple major factors behind the rise in kinlessness: fewer Americans are marrying;2 more couples are divorcing, even late in life; and fewer people are having kids. The overall aging of the U.S. population helps explain the growing number of older people without kin, of course, but not the increasing share of the population that is kinless, Verdery and Margolis report. The exact causes and extent of the trend vary by sex and race. At present, the authors note, “white and black Americans of both sexes currently have comparable rates of kinlessness in older adulthood.” Yet differing trends in marriage, divorce, fertility, and mortality between groups will produce gaps in the future.

Specifically, the authors project that the share of white men and women who have no living partner or biological children will hover around 8 to 10% between 2015 and 2060, while the number rises from 6.6 million to 8.2 million for white men, and from 6.3 million to 7.0 million for white women in the same period. Among African Americans, not only the number of kinless older people but also the share that is kinless will increase notably. Between 2015 and 2060, the share of black men who have no living partner or children will rise from 9.7 to 12.6%, and the share of black women who are kinless will rise from 10.5 to 15.1%.

Among white men, black men, and black women, most of the increase in kinlessness will be attributable to more people forgoing marriage and parenthood altogether. White women are more likely to be kinless because they lost a spouse (whether to death or divorce) with whom they never had children. Throughout the studied time period, African Americans are more likely than whites to be kinless due to the death of both a partner and child(ren); however, this is by far the least common reason for kinlessness

Needless to say, plenty of older people who do not have a living partner or children are doing just fine. Those without spouses or kids can sometimes lean on stepchildren, other relatives, neighbors, and friends for help. And to quote Verdery and Margolis’s caveat, “not all close kin are in contact, geographically proximate, emotionally intimate, or willing or able to exchange resources.” Caring for loved ones as they age is certainly a challenge for families of all shapes and sizes. All the same, kinless older adults are in a particularly vulnerable position. As we continue to adapt public policy and community life to the needs of an aging population, we should keep them especially in mind.

On a more personal level, young adults who currently face decisions about romantic relationships, marriage, and parenthood may benefit from reflecting on the impending rise in kinlessness. Despite the documented benefits of marriage for people’s health and life satisfaction, it is easy for young people to fear that the immediate sacrifices demanded by marriage and especially parenthood will outweigh their rewards. Yet we should remember that the rewards typically emerge over a longer span of time than the sacrifices of free time, personal space, and sleep. To put it more concretely, if you and your spouse are 30 years old now, deciding not to have a baby this year also means deciding not to have a 40-year-old son or daughter to look after your 70-year-old selves in 2058. Becoming a parent is no guarantee that you’ll gain a lifelong friend, but all things being equal, it raises your chances of enjoying companionship and care in old age.

Anna Sutherland is a writer and editor living in Michigan. 

Editor's Note: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or views of the Institute for Family Studies.

1. Americans of other racial/ethnic backgrounds and all immigrants were excluded due to data limitations and for the sake of simplicity.

2. The study defined not only a spouse but any romantic partner as kin. Additional analyses by the authors showed that even if nonmarital, childless partnerships continue to increase in number, they would not greatly offset rising kinlessness.