Kinlessness refers to a person without close living relatives. The idea of "close relatives" can be defined various ways: for example, as no living partner or children, or as no living partner, children, siblings, or parents. Ashton M. Verdery and Rachel Margolis present "Projections of white and black older adults without living kin in the United States, 2015 to 2060" (PNAS, October 17, 2017, 114: 42, 11109-11114). They write:
"Our findings point to dramatic increases in the numbers of kinless older adults in the United States, whether we consider a broad or a narrow definition of kinlessness. The increases occur for whites and blacks, men and women. By 2060, we expect the population of white and black Americans over 50 y old without a living partner or children to reach as high as 21.1 million, 6.3 million of whom will also lack living siblings or parents, up from our estimates of 14.9 million and 1.8 million, respectively, in 2015. The population of adults who will be over 50 y old in 2060 is already alive, which increases our confidence about probable levels of future kinlessness, barring dramatic changes in projected demographic processes."
Here's a set of graphs showing their estimates:
Verdery and Margolis mostly focus on what assumptions about aging, mortality rates, marriage, abd childbirth drive their results. But at they note, those adults who will be over 50 in 2060 are already alive--that is, they were born in 2010 or earlier. Thus, we already know a certain amount about the family formation patterns of this group. But there are also broader social issues here. As they write:
Older adults have lived within dense kin networks for most of human history and the kinless have been a small subpopulation in the modern demographic era. However, recent declines in marriage, increases in gray divorce, and fertility decline are leading to larger numbers of older adults with no close family members. Mortality improvements and the increase in new relationship forms among older adults are not large enough to offset these trends.
Close family is a form of social insurance that often assists with addressing problems of life and old age. Figuring out what to for millions of people without close family will be a social challenge. At a personal level, give a thought to the kinless folks that you know.
A version of this article first appeared on Conversable Economist.
Timothy Taylor is an American economist. He is managing editor of the Journal of Economic Perspectives, a quarterly academic journal produced at Macalester College and published by the American Economic Association. Taylor received his Bachelor of Arts degree from Haverford College and a master's degree in economics from Stanford University. At Stanford, he was winner of the award for excellent teaching in a large class (more than 30 students) given by the Associated Students of Stanford University. At Minnesota, he was named a Distinguished Lecturer by the Department of Economics and voted Teacher of the Year by the master's degree students at the Hubert H. Humphrey Institute of Public Affairs. Taylor has been a guest speaker for groups of teachers of high school economics, visiting diplomats from eastern Europe, talk-radio shows, and community groups. From 1989 to 1997, Professor Taylor wrote an economics opinion column for the San Jose Mercury-News. He has published multiple lectures on economics through The Teaching Company. With Rudolph Penner and Isabel Sawhill, he is co-author of Updating America's Social Contract (2000), whose first chapter provided an early radical centrist perspective, "An Agenda for the Radical Middle". Taylor is also the author of The Instant Economist: Everything You Need to Know About How the Economy Works, published by the Penguin Group in 2012. The fourth edition of Taylor's Principles of Economics textbook was published by Textbook Media in 2017.