What single and married people think they will miss if they stop working

Bella DePaulo

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When adults get to the age when they start thinking about retirement, a big factor in whether they actually do retire is, of course, money. For single people who pay all of their expenses themselves, financial factors are likely to loom especially large in their decisions.

But are there other reasons, too, why older single people might be more likely than older married people to want to keep working? That’s what the Dutch social scientists Maria Eismann, Kene Henkens, and Matthijs Kalmijn wanted to know. Do single people care about the structure that work provides more than married people do? Do they care more about the social contacts they have at work? In “Why singles prefer to retire later,” published in Research on Aging, the authors reported that the single people did in fact care more about the daily structure of working.

But when it came to the social contacts available at work, the results were more surprising, and they were different for the men and the women. The results for the men were as predicted: the single men were more likely than the married men to expect to miss the social aspects of work if they stopped working. The married women, though, were just as likely as the single women to say that they expected to miss the social contacts that work provided.

How the study was conducted

The authors analyzed data from more than 6,000 workers, ages 60-65, who participated in the Dutch “Pension Panel Study” in 2015. The partnered people were either married or cohabiting; their partners were included, too. The single people were either divorced, widowed, or had always been single. (The results did not differ, so they were all averaged together in the group described as single.) Not included in the analyses were the 163 people who lived apart from their spouses or romantic partners. The authors did not indicate whether any of the workers included in the study had same-sex partners.

To figure out who wanted to keep working, the participants were asked, “What would be your preferred work situation one year from now?” On a 5-point scale, they indicated the strength of their preference to be working. The partners of the married and cohabiting workers were asked, “What would be your preference with regard to the work situation of your wife/husband/partner 1 year from now?”

The workers were also asked to indicate the extent to which they expected to miss (a) their work contacts and (b) the daily structure, when they stopped working.

Single people are more likely than partnered people to want to keep working – but not always

Did this study find that single people are more likely to want to keep working? Were the single people more likely to expect to miss the structure and the social aspects of work?

Overall, older single people were more likely to want to keep working than older partnered people.

Looking more closely, though, it depended on what was going on with the partnered people.

What if the married person’s spouse wasn’t working?

Single people (both women and men) were more likely to want to keep working than married people who had a spouse who wasn’t working.

What if the married person’s spouse was still working?

For the women: The single women wanted to keep working more than the married women did, even if the married woman’s spouse was still working.

For the men: The single men had the same preference to keep working as the married men whose spouse was still working.

What if the married person had a spouse who wanted them to stop working?

Single people were more likely to want to keep working than married people whose spouse wanted them to stop working.

What if the married person had a spouse who wanted them to keep working?

Single people were less likely to want to keep working than married people whose spouse wanted them to keep working.

What if the married person had a spouse who was neutral about whether they should keep working?

Very few spouses (about 16%) were neutral about whether their partner should keep working. Single people’s preferences to keep working were no different from married people’s if the married person’s spouse was neutral.

Taken together, these last three results might make it sound like single people should not differ overall from partnered people in their desire to keep working. They do, though, because spouses who want their partner to stop working seem to have a bigger influence than spouses who want their partner to keep working. (I am saying that they “seem to” because causality could not be established by the methodology of this study.)

Work provides structure and social contacts, too, and it is not just the single people who care about the socializing

The single people, more often than the partnered people, said that they expected to miss the structure provided by work. That was true for both the men and the women.

The single men, more often than the married men, also expected to miss the social aspects of the workplace. The married women were just as likely as the single women to say that they expected to miss the social contacts at work when they stopped working.

But what about the meaningfulness of work?

Previous research shows that single people value meaningful work more than married people do. Married people care more about getting paid a lot. That’s not just because they are more likely to have kids; even taking that into account, married people still care more about the money.

In the Dutch study, participants were not asked about the meaningfulness of their work. If the single people had more meaningful jobs than the partnered people, that could be another reason why they were generally more likely to want to keep working.

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Expert on the profound rewards of single life. Author of “Singled Out.” Popular TEDx speaker. Harvard PhD.

Summerland, CA
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