The author interviewed 15 older Black women about being Solo Agers. This article reveals those findings, as well as winding research on the same cohort throughout. Some topics covered include lower marriage rates, the gender pay gap, occupational segregation, education, caregiving and health disparities. Many embrace “radical self-care” as a way to cope with their unique economic and social challenges and they embrace community.
Black women, marriage, gender pay gap, caregiving, health disparities, community, Social Security, self care, gratitude
Over a three-month period in late 2022 and early 2023, I engaged 15 Black women ages 54 to 73 in small groups of two, three, and six about their experiences and attitudes as Black female Solo Agers. The median annual income for the group was $70,000. Four out of the 15 were divorced, two were widowed, and nine had never been married. Five had adult children and one was the mother of an adolescent. All with children hoped to avoid having to depend upon their children for care or financial support in old age.
While researchers, scholars, and advocates have explored the challenges faced by Black women in depth, there is relatively limited research specifically on older Black women who are aging alone. The few reports that reference Black Solo Agers have found that they face significant economic and social challenges in their later years and are more likely to rely upon government assistance programs and to experience poverty, lack of social support, and health disparities.
These findings are supported by data showing that Black women Solo Agers nearing retirement are at a higher risk of becoming old and poor in America, with median wealth for single college-educated Black women older than age 60 being significantly lower ($11,000) than that of married Black women ($424,000) or unmarried White women ($384,000) in the same age and education bracket (Zau et al., 2017).
Even determining the number of Black women Solo Agers is challenging due to the variation in data collection methods, timing, and definitions used.
For example, a study from the Census Bureau indicates that 47.5% of all Black women had never married by 2020, but this figure may not accurately reflect the total number of Black women Solo Agers as it includes individuals as young as 15 years old (Washington & Walker, 2022). And "never married" is just one aspect of being a Solo Ager. Other factors, such as widowhood or divorce, can also contribute to an individual aging alone.
Other research (e.g., here) shows that by 2020, 45% of Black 40-year-old women were unmarried compared to 17% of White women (Cohen, 2022). However, some of these women could eventually marry and some who are married may divorce or become widowed, which again would affect the overall number of Black women aging alone.
Some sources put the racial gap in marriage for Black women much higher. According to a 2020 report by the National Women's Law Center and a 2020 Marketplace article, Black women are more likely to be unmarried than women of other races and ethnicities, with more than 70% of Black women being unwed, based upon 2010 Census data (Stewart, 2020). So, while it is uncertain how many older Black women are aging alone, available data suggests the number is likely to be high, possibly above 50%.
Some of the women felt the terms Solo Ager and Elder Orphan implied that they were alone, helpless, and without support.
Further research is needed for a deeper understanding of the experiences and perspectives of Black women Solo Agers as distinct from their married counterparts. But given that women tend to outlive men, it is likely that a growing number of women, regardless of race, will be Solo Agers in the future.
The above information is especially relevant considering a significant proportion of Black women are unmarried and have a longer life expectancy than Black men. As a result, studies on older Black women in general can provide valuable insights into the challenges and realities of solo aging.
Interviews with the 15 Black Solo Agers I engaged offers an additional glimpse into the attitudes and experiences of this demographic, but a more extensive study is necessary for a more complete picture.
What’s in a Name?
While the statistics for Black women aging alone are dire, the attitudes and experiences of the 15 Black Solo Agers I engaged reveal a more nuanced narrative when looking beyond the numbers. This view challenges the notion that Black women generally and Black Solo Agers in particular should be defined mainly by their economic struggles and health challenges. This perspective, while recognizing the structural gendered racism that Black women face, also takes full account of the agency they exercise in navigating their Solo-Ager experience and devising strategies to thrive and not just survive.
Six out of the 15 women I engaged spoke out against the terms “Solo Ager” and “Elder Orphan” as they believe these labels perpetuate harmful stereotypes about older adults, particularly older adults who, by choice or circumstance, do not have children or traditional family structures. These women felt the terms Solo Ager and Elder Orphan implied that they were alone, helpless, and without support. For these women, the labels ignored the rich social networks that many Black women have built throughout their lives. These women did not see themselves as “aging alone” or “orphaned.” They saw themselves as having strong supportive social networks through their communities, friends, and chosen families. Others expressed feeling deeply connected to their church community and finding a sense of belonging and support through their faith.
Not all the women I engaged had a problem with the term Solo Ager, though all did reject the term Elder Orphan. One woman acknowledged—and many resonated with her observation—that though she has many friends, she’s not anybody’s “number one,” i.e., no one’s first priority. Another woman emphasized that despite the close relationship she has with her friends, none of them would be able to get to her fast enough in the event of a middle-of-the-night emergency.
The above sentiments led to a discussion about the need for a more robust and reliable technology solution that would allow older adults to stay connected with their support networks, especially in emergency situations. Preference was expressed for some sort of dedicated communication platform over the outdated “I’ve fallen and can’t get up” wearable devices with emergency response buttons of the past.
Root Causes of the Challenges Black Women Solo Agers Face
A lifetime of racial discrimination and gender bias creates structural barriers and narrower choice sets that show up for Black women as lower levels of employment, pay, educational attainment, and wealth accumulation. And gaps here mean less money and fewer assets to tap into to meet retirement needs.
Several factors fuel this retirement income shortfall experienced by older Black women and exacerbated for Solo Agers. These include lower marriage rates, a gender wage gap, occupational segregation, education and the gender/racial pay gap, sole provider and caretaking challenges, and health disparities.
Lower Marriage Rates
Lower marriage rates among Black women have a significant impact on their ability to save and get ahead financially. Women, who only have their own resources to rely upon, are often more economically vulnerable than their married counterparts, and Black women in particular face significant wage gaps and wealth disparities.
That said, of the 15 older Black women with whom I spoke, only three aspired to be married. While they were open to romantic relationships and male companionship, the effort and energy needed to find someone was a low priority for most, with only two exceptions. None of them saw marriage as the only way to get needed emotional and social support. Generally speaking, the drawbacks of marriage featured more prominently in the discussion than did any potential benefits.
“I don’t want to be a purse or a nurse,” said one, shorthand for “I don't want to end up being a financial support or caretaker for a man who may not be in good health.” The prospect of having to support someone else financially or tend to their needs during illness was a non-starter given the already challenging task of managing one's own finances and well-being.
Another woman stated, "I would like to be in a relationship, but I don't think I can handle living with someone at this point in my life." Instead, she prefers what has been called a Living Apart Together (LAT) relationship, which allows for a shared life without sharing a living space and associated responsibilities such as caretaking and household duties.
The women I spoke with acknowledged that marriage can bring economic advantages, such as joint assets, increased income, and larger social circles, but with age and experience, they also recognize its drawbacks.
The Gender Wage Gap
According to the U.S. Census Bureau, a typical Black woman working a full-time, year-round job earns 63 cents for every dollar earned by a White non-Hispanic man. This wage disparity results in lost pay of $24,110 annually or nearly $1 million over a 40-year career (National Partnership for Women & Families, 2022).
Research conducted by the National Partnership for Women and Families (2022) shows the negative impact of the gender wage gap on a Black woman's ability to afford essentials such as food, rent, mortgage payments, health insurance, and childcare. This lost income also hinders her ability to establish an emergency fund, save for retirement, or build wealth through home ownership or starting a business. Closing the wage gap would greatly benefit all women, but particularly Black and Brown women, who experience the greatest lifetime earnings losses.
With age and experience, many of the women recognize the drawbacks of marriage.
Several women I spoke with expressed concern about running out of resources and feeling stuck in a cycle of working for the rest of their lives. They worried about their financial situation worsening if they were ever forced to stop working for health reasons. And they feared that even a minor setback would drain the savings they had managed to set aside.
Social Security is a line-in-the-sand issue for older Black women, accounting for 58% of their post-work income (National Committee to Preserve Social Security & Medicare, 2023). It is often the difference between a precarious future and misery and destitution. Out of necessity, four of the Black women Solo Agers with whom I spoke opted to file for early Social Security, a trend reflected in the 42% of Americans who do the same. Despite the potential reduction of lifetime benefits of up to 30%, cash-strapped, these women felt they had no alternative (Konish, 2022).
Black women today hold jobs in all industries at all levels, including in management and leadership roles, but they are disproportionately represented in low-wage jobs in industries like retail, hospitality, and food service. These industries are characterized by part-time work, low pay, and limited benefits such as retirement plans.
According to the National Women’s Law Center, Black women working full-time, year-round in these low-paying jobs typically earn about $21,700, compared to the $36,000 typically paid to White non-Hispanic men in the same line of work. This wage gap is a significant contributor to the retirement income shortfall experienced by older Black women (Temple & Tucker, 2017).
Workers in these low hourly wage occupations are also much less likely to have retirement plan coverage such as a pension or 401(k). And, as a result, Black women holding these jobs lose out on plan benefits such as employer matches and automated contributions.
Education and the Racial Pay Gap
A study by the Urban Institute found that Black woman are “paid lower wages than White men, African American men and White women at every level of education” (Kijakazi et al., 2019). This is supported by data from the National Women’s Law Center, which shows that a White non-Hispanic man with a high school diploma typically earns more than a Black woman with a bachelor’s degree (Temple & Tucker, 2017). Even with a master’s degree, Black women earn less than White non-Hispanic men with an associate degree (Temple & Tucker, 2017). This disparity in earnings highlights the ongoing barriers Black women face in the workforce despite their educational achievements.
Sole Provider and Caretaking Challenges
Black women also are more likely (three out of four) to be the sole breadwinner or primary caretaker in their households, which can limit their earning potential and ability to save (Institute for Women’s Policy Research, 2020). For many, one financial shock—a family emergency, loss of income, illness, or major repair—can turn into a financial catastrophe with an outsized impact on their families and the communities that depend upon them. Lower wages and limited employment opportunities make it more difficult for Black women Solo Agers to save for retirement and contribute to economic insecurity in their later years.
Black women face unique, lifelong, chronic stressors that negatively impact their health. And they are less likely to have access to quality preventive care or be offered healthcare coverage by their employer (Walton, 2020).
Family and caregiving challenges, financial hardship, and other daily stressors compounded by race and gender bias/discrimination increase their risk for a host of chronic diseases like hypertension, cardiovascular disease, certain cancers, and lupus (Office of Minority Health & Health Disparities Research, 2023).
Taken together, Black women are more likely to enter their retirement years alone, in poor health, with lower lifetime earnings, less wealth, scant savings, and reduced Social Security benefits. And as the main or primary household earner, many also may have heavy family responsibilities, including care for grandchildren and older relatives.
Strategies for Flourishing in the Not-So-Golden Years
Self-Care as a Necessity
The 15 Black Solo Agers I engaged have, to varying degrees, lived the challenges described above. They have been navigating the intersection of racism and sexism throughout their lives. They have become experts in perseverance in the face of discrimination and marginalization. And now as older women, they view ageism as another form of oppression they have to contend with, not too different from the others. It is a muscle they are used to working. They have learned to adapt and overcome and will continue to do so as they age.
However, this is not about pretending to be invincible. The Black Solo Agers with whom I spoke pushed back against the strong Black woman trope. They challenged the idea that they should always be strong and capable of handling everything on their own.
In different ways, they emphasized the importance of self-care and agreed that it does not have to be expensive or extravagant. For many, it could be as simple as taking a walk with a friend or sharing a meal with loved ones. Self-care is not viewed as a luxury but a necessity, a way to manage the daily challenges they face as older, unpartnered, Black women aging alone.
And finally, self-care is not viewed as a panacea for the complex challenges that Black women Solo Agers face. It does not solve the systemic issues of discrimination and lack of resources that many are encountering. It does remind women to prioritize their own needs, which is crucial for maintaining their overall health and well-being.
Gratitude as a Source of Resilience
A February 2021 AARP study on Solo Agers found that most individuals who are aging alone report positive feelings such as independence (60%), satisfaction (50%), and happiness (38%), with a small percentage reporting feeling sad (13%) or angry (2%; Thayer, 2021).
Similarly, the Black Solo Agers with whom I spoke also shared positive sentiments about living alone as they age, but a notable 9 out of 15 mentioned feeling a sense of gratitude. Gratitude has been found to play a key role in a person’s ability to persevere in the face of adversity. A study published in the Journal of Positive Psychology found that individuals who regularly practice gratitude are more resilient in the face of stress and have better psychological well-being (Madhuleena, 2019). Gratitude is recognizing how easily things could have gone off the rails but didn’t. It shifts the focus from what one lacks or fears to what one already has and can build upon. For the Black women Solo Agers I engaged, cultivating a grateful perspective helped them to see opportunities, move forward on “faith,” and use their agency to navigate or even subvert systems of oppression.
The 15 Black Solo Agers I engaged have become experts in perseverance in the face of discrimination and marginalization.
For them, self-care and a mindset of appreciation are not luxuries. They are necessities for survival and resilience. Author Tricia Heresy, 48, in her book "In Rest Is Resistance" speaks to this point, encouraging Black women to reject grind culture and tap into the "liberating power of rest, daydreaming and naps as a foundation for justice and healing" (McAfee, 2022).
Impact of Longevity on Work
Life expectancy for Black women who reached age 60 in 2020 is 81 (Arias et al. , 2021). A longer life changes expectations around work. Short on finances, many older Black women will be looking for ways to remain employable for longer. And Black women aging alone are under even more pressure to secure sustainable sources of income.
This was true for the group of Black women Solo Agers I engaged. All but two were in their 60s and 70s. Yet despite being at or near traditional retirement age, of those 13, 11 were still working or looking for work, even if part-time. And of the two not working or looking for work, one lived off an inheritance from her parents and one had set aside enough in retirement savings to live comfortably without working.
Two of the nine women still working at age 60 and older did so because they loved their jobs and wanted to continue to add to their retirement savings. Four women with little or no retirement savings worked out of necessity to cover basic expenses. The remaining three, with better than average Social Security benefits and/or small pensions, worked for discretionary income to support leisure activities like travel.
The majority of the group relied upon short-term contract work or gig-based assignments, such as being Airbnb hosts, to make ends meet. Only two individuals had traditional full-time jobs with benefits. Nearly all of the women who were still employed worried about not having enough financial resources to sustain their lifestyle if they outlived their savings or were unable to work.
The conventional perspective on work and retirement needs to evolve. Retirement is no longer a one-time event, or a one-way exit. The needs and circumstances of those still seeking employment at age 60 are very different from those exiting the workforce.
Older Black women, in many respects, are the test case for policy makers and age-solution advocates. Being among the most vulnerable older adults, Black women are an early warning of a broader crisis on the horizon. Prioritizing their needs and access to resources and support such as retraining and upskilling programs for better jobs with benefits could serve as a model for addressing other vulnerable groups.
Trailblazer Janelle Jones, the first Black woman to serve as the Department of Labor’s chief economist, coined the phrase “Black Women Best” to explain why prioritizing Black women in U.S. economic policy would benefit and safeguard everyone else. When marginalized and vulnerable groups are uplifted and pulled out of the state of being precarious, everyone benefits.
While it is difficult to determine the exact number of older Black women who are aging alone due to limited data and research in this area, the challenges faced by this growing demographic are well documented and underscore the need for greater support and resources for aging individuals who may not have a spouse or traditional support system in place.
The Solo Ager demographic is particularly relevant for older Black women, who have a higher rate of singlehood and longer life expectancies compared to Black men.
Black women Solo Agers also face unique economic challenges, including lower lifetime earnings, limited access to pension and retirement benefits, and higher rates of poverty. This situation makes it difficult for them to prepare for and manage the costs of aging, including healthcare expenses.
They also face barriers to accessing quality healthcare and are, thus, at a higher risk for health issues, including chronic conditions and disabilities.
The Black women Solo Agers I engaged rejected the "strong Black woman" trope, which they viewed as harmful in that it perpetuated the idea that they did not need help or support and should not ask for it. They embrace “radical self-care” as a means of coping with the unique economic and social challenges they face and as a way to prioritize their health and well-being.
They were cautious about entering into relationships that may negatively impact their independence and financial security. A few considered relationships where partners lived separately but maintained intimate connection as a flexible and practical solution.
The women I interviewed found solace and support from their community networks, including family, friends, and community organizations, which gave them a sense of belonging. Additionally, many of them also had faith communities that played an important role in their lives, providing them with a spiritual connection and sense of comfort.
Almost all the women I spoke with were looking for ways to maintain employability, particularly given their longer life expectancies. Many had turned to contract or gig work as a way to remain financially stable. The fear of outliving their resources or becoming unable to work due to illness was a common concern.
Elizabeth White, MBA, author of 55, Underemployed, and Faking Normal (Simon and Schuster, 2019) is an aging-solutions advocate for older adults facing uncertain work and financial insecurity. She is a frequent guest blogger and speaker at conferences and workshops, and has been named one of the top 50 influencers on aging in the country. Her essays and work have appeared in publications like Barron’s, Forbes, The Huffington Post, MarketWatch, Next Avenue, and The Washington Post. She has been featured prominently in three segments on the PBS NewsHour and has been invited to speak before the Senate Special Committee on Aging. Her TEDx Talk has been elevated to the main TED stage where it has garnered more than 2 million views. She can be contacted at Ebeth@55andfakingnormal.com.
Photo credit: Shutterstock/Rocketclips, Inc.
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