(The writer is a Reuters contributor. The opinions expressed are his own.)
NEW YORK, April 3 (Reuters) - For years, Joanne Condon tossed and turned at night with the same thoughts running through her head.
What if her retirement savings just were not enough? What if that day finally came, when her bank accounts ran dry?
A familiar fear for virtually every American, of course. One key difference about Condon's situation: She is single, never married. And that made the fear of outliving her money seem all the more urgent and stark.
"The biggest challenge is the fact that it is just you," says the 56-year-old from East Rutherford, New Jersey. "You don't have anyone else to rely on, and no one else is contributing to your retirement."
Condon's fears are being felt by more and more Americans. In 1960, 68 percent of those 15 and older were married, according to a recent report on marriage trends by the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO). By 2010, that figure had plummeted to 54 percent.
Meanwhile, the ranks of the divorced, widowed, and never-married has exploded to 46 percent of the over-15 population.
The demographic shift has been so major that it could significantly alter the retirement landscape in the years ahead. Never-married Americans, in particular, may lack such safety nets as relying on a spouse's income, inheriting his or her assets, or receiving survivor benefits from a spouse's pension or Social Security.
"It is such a dramatic increase, compared to the way the world used to be," says Charlie Jeszeck, director of GAO's education, workforce and income security team. "It is an illustration of just how much things have changed, since the days of Ozzie and Harriet and The Donna Reed Show."
In many ways, this trend can be seen as liberating. People are marrying much later than in previous decades, not feeling pressured to get hitched right out of high school or college. Others simply decide that marriage is not the right choice for them.
But it cranks up their potential vulnerability in retirement, to the point that the GAO issued its warning about what the growing cohort of single, divorced or widowed Americans is going to mean for our collective golden years.
Indeed, poverty rates for older, single Americans are not encouraging. Among married folks 65-plus, men are experiencing an estimated poverty rate of 4.7 percent, and women 4.9 percent.
In contrast, poverty rates for single, widowed and divorced Americans are all far higher. Among the never-married over 65, for instance, 15.7 percent of men and 23.2 percent of women are considered poor.
NO BACK UP
There are a number of unique financial challenges behind that number. "There is no back-up of a second source of income" says Jan Cullinane, the Palm Coast, Florida-based author of "The Single Woman's Guide to Retirement". "Living alone can be more expensive than living with another person.
"There is also no possibility of a 'built-in' caregiver, if you ever need one," Cullinane says. "And if traveling without a roommate, singles often have to pay the dreaded 'single supplement.' "
Still, there are savings strategies singles can pursue.
Cullinane suggests a platonic roommate to keep costs down, an option that can be explored through the National Shared Housing Resource Center (www.nationalsharedhousing.org). There are also a growing number of senior-oriented communities, offering different levels of assisted living that could be helpful for a single retiree.
GAO's Jeszeck suggests that Americans in this situation get particularly aggressive in saving for retirement to mitigate the challenges and avoid those looming poverty rates.
Without a lot of margin for error, though, you have to run the table and "do everything right," he says, recommending single people work longer than they might have expected, save diligently, and invest wisely.
As for Joanne Condon, her constant worry actually helped set her up nicely for retirement, since it translated into a powerful savings plan.
"You wonder what unforeseen circumstance might present itself, and upset the applecart," Condon says. "I was always thinking, 'It's all up to you, Joanne. There's no one else here.' "
Condon became so diligent, since she knew she had to rely solely on herself, that she is now retired at the relatively young age of 56, after a lengthy career in sales for business insights firm Dun & Bradstreet.
She owns her home outright, and has outlined a three-pronged retirement plan that includes her corporate pension, her retirement savings such as an Individual Retirement Account and Social Security. With the help of planner Kevin Lanahan, she has got her financial house in order - and is no longer terrified of single retirement.
"I finally realized I was okay," she says. "Now I can sleep at night."
(Follow us zReutersMoney or at http://www.reuters.com/finance/personal-finance Editing by Lauren Young and David Gregorio)