An ILC-UK Valentine’s Day Special: Finding love in later life

Feb 12, 2016 | BLOG

By: Cesira Urzì Brancati

In the first blog, we investigated sexual desire and sexual activities among English people aged 65+ and revealed how, even though they both decreased with age, they still matter for a significant proportion of older people.

In the second blog of the series, we investigate another burning subject: love and marriages in later life. In other words, we try to answer the following questions: how many people aged 50+ are likely to remarry after experiencing divorce/widowhood? Do people’s chances of finding love decrease with age? What differentiates people who remarry? And finally, does sexual desire play a role?

To this end, we carried out some empirical analyses using 10 years’ worth of data from the English Longitudinal Study of Ageing (ELSA) 2002-2012.

Between 2002 and 2012, approximately 1 in 10 English people aged 50+ classify themselves as divorced, while about 1 in 6 as a widow/er. Among them, a relatively low proportion, approximately 1 in 20, managed to find a new partner during the period considered, with the numbers increasing over time (see figure 1) for a total of approximately 185,000 new relationships in 2012.

Figure 1: Divorcées/Separated or Widow(er)s finding a new partner in later life

Source: Own elaborations from ELSA 2002-2012

Unsurprisingly, finding a new partner is easier for divorcées than for widows and widowers, who may still be grieving for the loss of their partner; however, between 2002 and 2012, nearly 50,000 widows and widowers remarried (or started cohabiting) and among them, at least half were aged 65+.

How does the likelihood of finding a new partner changes with age?

In Figure 2 we plot the relationship between ageing and the likelihood of finding a new partner for men and women. The results are somewhat surprising and reveal a profound gender gap.

In general, finding a new partner appears to be harder for women than men at any age, but it is next to impossible for women past the age of 75. The likelihood of starting a new relationship is even lower for widows and widowers, and it drastically drops with age, even after taking into account any potential health factors.

Figure 2: How is ageing associated with the probability of finding a new partner?

Source: Own elaborations from ELSA 2002-2012

Who remarries?

We then turn to analyse the socio-demographic characteristics of divorced/widowed people aged 50+ who manage to find a new partner[1], and discover not only that women are less likely to find a new partner than men, but also that healthy people are more likely to find a new partner than those in bad health. Being highly educated, i.e. having a degree, only has a positive impact for widows, while it has no association with the probability that a divorcée remarries.

Quite interestingly, high sexual desire (i.e. claiming to think about sex more than once a week) only seems to have an impact on widows, while it does not affect the likelihood that divorcée finds a new partner.[2]

How can we explain the gender gap in romantic success?

Many reasons can explain the different success rate between men and women in finding a new partner, and the simplest one is probably that the number of “suitable” men – i.e. men who are not part of a couple – is much smaller. Indeed, nearly two thirds of divorcées and three quarters of widowed aged 50+ are women, which leaves men with a much larger sample to choose from.

And yet, only a tiny proportion of unmarried older people begins a new relationship, and, from our previous blog, we learned that at least half of them still has sexual desire, so presumably would benefit from finding a partner.

If that were the case, then initiatives aimed at increasing awareness about dating later in life would be surely welcome.

[1] Results from two probit regressions where the dependent variable is the probability of a transition from divorced/widow to being part of a couple and the independent variables are gender (dummy for female), age, health and education.

[2] Estimates on the impact of sexual desire are not very robust, since the sample size is extremely small.

Cesira Urzì Brancati

Research Fellow

Cesira Urzi Brancati currently works at the Joint Research Centre (JRC) -Seville, European Commission. Cesira does research in Economics and her current project is on the labour market impact of the collaborative economy.