My fave radio host spent an hour this week discussing why Boomers' divorce rates rising dramatically while overall divorce rates continue to go down. Spurred by a major article in the Wall Street Journal last weekend based on soon-to-be published research by Bowling Green State U. sociology profs Susan Brown and I-Fen Lin, the piece mulls the reasons why over-50s folk, once thought unlikely to bust long-term marriages, would increase their proportion of divorces, while in the same period, the divorce rate overall declined.
More specifically, oldsters' divorces increased from 5 per 1,000 married people to 10 in the last 20 years, while the overall divorce rate declined from 19 to 17 per 1,000 married people.
If you ask me (and I've written a best-selling book on divorce), they've made big news out of predictable data.
The huge headline should be that the always-phony 50% divorce rate is once again shown false. That people who do get married--and there are less of them nowadays--tend to stay that way. But as the huge demographic Boomer bump becomes seniors, they drag their life-long willingness to divorce into a new generational rubrick, a time of life when previous cohorts of oldsters tended to eschew divorce. Boomers never have.
Another change is that far fewer people marry in their 20s. In 1986, 27% of those under 30 had never married. By 2009, that figure had jumped to 47%. That means nearly half of those in their 20s weren't even in the running for a divorce. Of course, then, with younger people representing fewer of the marriages, older people's proportion of divorces increases.
We should celebrate that most people stay married to their first-and-only partners. Census Bureau figures (May, 2011) show that for 72% of married couples, both partners are in their first marriages--and more than half of the remainder contained one partner in a first marriage. (And indeed, Table 6 of of the Census Bureau's report, "Number, Timing and Duration of Marriages and Divorces: 2009" reveals just that.)
So we see a few things to temper the scare over "Gray Divorcees." First, most people do stay married, so this so-called "phenomenon" of later divorces is relatively small. Second, the average age of the married population, and thus divorcees, is older. Third, the proportion of divorces by people beyond age 50 has increased, but because they're boomers who fueled the divorce revolution, many of those are second or subsequent marriages.
That's the crux of the issue--Boomers are just continuing to do what they've always done. Continued vitality also fuels marital movement: people are living longer so they're around to divorce into their 60s, and want to make the most of the decades they've got left. Boomers won't put up with relationships that don't match their "me generation" expectations.
A sidebar column in the Wall Street Journal by Carl Bialik describes risk factors for older divorce, including failure in previous marriages and, guess what, infidelity. Twenty-seven percent of respondents in a 2003 AARP poll of people who'd gotten divorced at least once between ages 40 and 69 said affairs were a reason (16% said it was the primary reason).
Boomers liberalized divorce, popularized cohabitation, and sang, "we don't need no piece of paper from the city hall, keepin' us tried and true." They were the ones who brought the divorce rate to its peak in 1981.
A more recent contributing factor to the willingness of Boomers to divorce (at a stage when their parents and grandparents wouldn't) is the general redefinition of marriage. Rather than a responsibility, a commitment and a sacrament, marriage is now a declaration of love, with some legal consequences. Breaking up is a sad reality for many people, and now, after years of doing just what they've pleased in their liaisons, Boomers as a group are simply continuing to exercise their expanded range of options.
A more recent contributing factor to the willingness of Boomers to divorce (at a stage when their parents and grandparents wouldn't) is the general redefinition of marriage. Rather than a responsibility, a commitment and a sacrament, marriage is now a declaration of love, with some legal consequences. When gay marriage was considered outrageous, marriage was the honored place where an man and woman raised their family, bound not only by spouses' affection but a community that considered their stability key to success. Responsibility for someone else (spouse) first was the marital norm for pre-Boomers; now first responsibility is to oneself, and the general attitude shuns judgement of or obligation to others.
The New York Times reported this study on Boomer divorce rates as part of elders' broader trend toward living uncoupled, the focus of the Brown-Lin research. Given the sheer size of this demographic group, the fact that a third of over-50s won't jog into the sunset with the support of a spouse could have a major impact on federal and local policy and spending. But hey, 80 is the new 50, and medical science has botox'd this group wrinkle-less; they may decide to shack up or revive the communes of the 60s as they live another 40 years. We just have to look at this cohort differently from old folk who came before. Let the sun shine in.