Marital Histories, Gender, and Financial Security in Late Mid-Life: Evidence from Four Cohorts in the Health and Retirement Study

by Amelia Karraker and Cassandra Dorius, Iowa State University

Marital status is a well-established predictor of financial well-being in later life, with continuously married people enjoying considerable economic benefits that accumulate across the life course, contrasting sharply with the economic vulnerabilities faced by divorced, widowed, or never married individuals. Though prior studies have examined the linkages between marriage and financial well-being in pre-retirement, research in this area suffers from one or more of these limitations: First, previous research has largely relied on coarse measures of marital history or a single financial outcome, potentially obscuring important variation in the relationship between family complexity and retirement preparedness. Second, previous work has not examined the youngest cohort facing retirement – Middle Baby Boomers – whose complex marital histories may leave them less prepared for financial challenges in later life. For example, Middle Baby Boomers (born in the mid-to-late 1950s) are three times more likely to never marry and 16 percent less likely to be continuously married compared with individuals born 20 years earlier. Third, work on marriage and financial outcomes often utilize all-female samples, concealing potential gender inequalities in financial wellbeing at this stage in the life course. Using data from the Health and Retirement Study (HRS), this project identifies three aims to address these limitations. First, we will develop elaborated measures of marital histories – including the sequencing of marital statuses and the duration of current and past relationships – to predict multidimensional measures of financial security in pre-retirement, including total wealth (with and without housing wealth), Social Security payments and wealth, income, pensions (defined benefit and defined contribution), and poverty status. Second, we will use these improved measures to examine inter-cohort variation in the relationship between marital history and financial security among four cohorts of older Americans who have experienced vastly different family forming behaviors: the original HRS Cohort, War Babies, early Baby Boomers, and Middle Baby Boomers. Third, we use multivariate regression and age-period-cohort analysis to compare the association between marital histories and financial security for four cohorts of men and women in late middle-age, when earnings and assets are at a lifetime peak and gender distinctions are likely high. By incorporating detailed measures of individuals’ marital histories and financial status, this project presents a more complete picture of how family complexity influences financial security in pre-retirement, as well as how financial security may be changing by gender and across cohorts, information that is critically important to both researchers and policymakers.

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