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Study: Women Have Made Big Strides In Retirement Readiness

Women still have to deal with lower pay, career interruptions

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A successful self-employed consultant in New York, Laura Schooler, 51, is sometimes asked why she’s never gotten married. “I never thought someone could do better for me than I could do for myself,” she answers.

Now Schooler has proof.

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Fifty years after Title IX prohibited sex-based discrimination in education, women have made enough gains that they no longer need to get married to ensure financial security and retire comfortably, according to a new study by the Center for Retirement Research at Boston College.

Although there remains a gap in earnings, and caregiving responsibilities continue to fall disproportionately on them, women in the baby boom generation are doing as well as, or better than, men, who took a bigger financial hit during the Great Recession, the study found.

And women who have spent all or most of their lives single, on average, are as prepared for retirement as women who have spent most of their lives married.

A world apart

Decades after Title IX, “we expected to see women accumulating more wealth, with more education and higher earnings relative to prior cohorts of women,” said Laura Quinby, a senior research economist at the center and a coauthor of the study. “We were a bit surprised, though pleasantly so,” to find that women — who are getting married later, on average, and generally spending less of their lives that way — are doing so well.

It’s a world apart from what Schooler remembers about the older women she knew when she was growing up in the 1970s and ’80s.

“It may as well have been the ’50s and ’60s,” Schooler said. “Most people’s mothers stayed at home. Most people’s mothers stayed married. The neighborhood mothers were married to their husbands, and that’s whose money they relied on.”

The news isn’t all good. That stubborn pay gap under which women earn 82 cents for every dollar earned by men, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, is among the reasons Quinby and her fellow scholars expect the progress women have made to level off.

So is the fact that they are more likely to have the principal caregiver obligations and — the Census Bureau reports — to work in lower-paying jobs.

“The husband doesn’t face what the wife does: taking care of the kids, going in and out of the workforce. A lot of those single women are running around, doing all the errands for the family. They’re not thinking, ‘Oh, let me catch up on that retirement savings,’ ” said Cindy Hounsell, president of the Women’s Institute for a Secure Retirement, or WISER.

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Still a long way to go

The study’s finding “is a benchmark. It’s a snapshot of women with educations and careers,” Hounsell said. “There’s also all the women who haven’t gone to college, and they still count. The extent to which women are prepared depends on individual circumstances.”

Some of those circumstances can be dire, said Chastity Lord, president and CEO of the Jeremiah Program, which helps single mothers get college degrees, affordable housing and career coaching to escape from poverty.

“That pay gap, for the middle class and upper middle class, is frustrating. It’s disrespectful. But when you talk about the lower income and poor, it’s more than that. It’s groceries. It’s the ability to eat,” Lord said.

“Nobody’s thinking about retirement when you’re thinking about rent. Nobody’s thinking about retirement when you’re thinking about groceries,” Lord said. “When you’re thinking about existing in the day to day, it’s a privilege to map out what life would be like in 40 or 50 years.”

That reality got worse for some women during the pandemic, when women were more likely to quit or lose their jobs than men, according to the Economic Policy Institute.

Ashley Mages watched as “women who were employed, those numbers dropped. And it was directly affecting women more than men.”

Mages, who had a daughter while in high school, delivered pizza on the weekends to afford community college, got a bachelor’s degree in engineering and, at 30, is a senior controls engineer at a Fortune 500 company in Minneapolis, where she’s working on her master’s.

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As one of the women who are better off than they might have been in earlier decades, she said she understands the rough road earlier generations of women took for her to get there.

“They had some of those passions and ambitions, but this wasn’t an opportunity they had,” Mages said. “Title IX and other women who came before made what I do a reality. There were some hurdles I had to go over, but the battle was largely fought before.”

Among other differences among the generations, women are getting married later in life — at 29, compared with 22 in 1980, according to the Census Bureau, which reports that the percentage who never marry is growing fast.

Other inequities hurt retirement readiness  

Schooler invests in real estate, never leaves a credit card bill unpaid, had a 401(k) with matching contributions when she worked for a corporation, puts money into an IRA from her job as a public relations consultant and checks her investments constantly.

“I’ve even thought to myself, ‘Nobody, at least who I’ve gone out with, could do better for me than I’ve done for myself,’ ” she said.

But women in general are less at ease with managing their finances than men, according to the Federal Reserve. Sixty-four percent of men with bachelor’s degrees were comfortable making investment decisions compared with 33 percent of women with bachelor’s degrees, it found. A General Accountability Office report to the Senate Special Committee on Aging found that older women experience anxiety about financial security in retirement.

Women also have longer retirements to pay for, and with less money saved. Women in America live nearly five years longer than men, the Census Bureau calculates. Because of that nagging pay gap, the typical man, over a 40-year career, will save $407,760 more than a typical woman, according to the National Committee to Preserve Social Security and Medicare; to make up for this disparity, it says, the woman would have to work nearly 10 more years.

Long-term trends appear positive, however. The gender pay gap is narrowing for younger women, the Pew Research Center reports. Women outnumber men in college, according to the National Student Clearinghouse, and Pew says the number of working, college-educated women just surpassed the number of working, college-educated men. The ratio of women’s wealth to men’s wealth has narrowed from 82-85 percent among older generations to 90-93 percent for younger ones, the Center for Retirement Research study estimates.

That means women such as Schooler are anticipating fabulous retirements. “You have to rely on yourself to make sure that you are covered financially,” she said. “Because nobody’s going to care about you more than you’re going to care for yourself.”

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