Social and Economic Consequences of Widowhood during Retirement: A Comparative Study on Pensions and Survivor Benefits

Widowhood is a critical life course event that entails not only profound grief, but also severe social and economic consequences. For instance, spousal loss can significantly reduce household income, while expenses remain unchanged.

1–3 Such a rapid drop in purchasing power, together with other psychological and social challenges, puts widows and widowers at a high risk of poverty and exclusion. Moreover, these risks are strongly gendered. Women are more likely to outlive their husbands, but their pensions tend to be lower because of gender differences in lifetime earnings.

As populations age, the number of marriages ending with the death of a spouse is dramatically rising along with the potential number of years a widow or widower can expect to live.

4 In the Netherlands, almost 61,000 spousal deaths were recorder in 2019, roughly 6,000 more than a decade earlier and twice the number of divorces.* During the Covid-19 pandemic, the incidence of widowhood increased to unexpectedly high numbers. Despite widowhood events increasing in frequency, many countries have retrenched or even abolished survivor benefit schemes targeted at securing the wellbeing of widows and widowers.

5 For example, survivor benefits in the Netherlands were scaled back considerably in the mid-1990s, while the new pension agreement states that total expenditure on survivor pensions will not rise.

The challenges surrounding widowhood are becoming increasingly urgent, and many pension systems require more sustainable and equitable solutions for survivor benefit schemes. Nevertheless, social scientific research is limited and fragmented in this regard.

At the individual level, research is needed to understand the individual consequences of spousal death for older survivors’ social and economic wellbeing as well as the socioeconomic disparities involved in this process.

At the structural level, it is necessary to learn how to design pension systems that prevent widowhood-related poverty and reduce economic inequalities while remaining sustainable for future generations.

To address these goals, this project takes a comparative approach to study widowhood events across countries and pension contexts.

Netspar, Network for Studies on Pensions, Aging and Retirement, is a thinktank and knowledge network. Netspar is dedicated to promoting a wider understanding of the economic and social implications of pensions, aging and retirement in the Netherlands and Europe.

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