NATIONAL BUREAU OF ECONOMIC RESEARCH
NATIONAL BUREAU OF ECONOMIC RESEARCH
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The Life Expectancy of Older Couples And Surviving Spouses

Janice Compton, Robert A. Pollak

NBER Working Paper No. 25009
Issued in September 2018
NBER Program(s):Labor Studies

Individual life expectancies are easy to calculate from individual mortality rates and provide useful summary measures for individuals making retirement decisions and for policy makers. For couples, analogous measures are the expected years both spouses will be alive (joint life expectancy) and the expected years the surviving spouse will spend as a widow or widower (survivor life expectancy). Using individual life expectancies to calculate summary measures for couples yields substantially misleading results because the mortality distribution of husbands and wives overlap substantially. To illustrate, consider a wife aged 60 whose husband is 62. In 2010, the wife's life expectancy was 24.5 years and her husband's 20.2 years. The couple's joint life expectancy, however, is only 17.7 years. Although her life expectancy is four years longer than his, if she is widowed (probability: .62), her survivor life expectancy is 12.5 years; if the husband is a widower (probability: .38), his survivor life expectancy is 9.5 years. We calculate trends and patterns in joint and survivor life expectancy in each census year from 1930 to 2010. Using 2010 data, we also investigate differences in joint and survivor life expectancy by race and ethnicity and by education.

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Document Object Identifier (DOI): 10.3386/w25009

 
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