According to the Wall Street Journal, the divorce rate in the United States is declining overall – but increasing among older couples, as the baby boomers start seeing their children leave the nest:
For the new generation of empty-nesters, divorce is increasingly common. Among people ages 50 and older, the divorce rate has doubled over the past two decades, according to new research by sociologists Susan Brown and I-Fen Lin of Bowling Green State University, whose paper, “The Gray Divorce Revolution,” Prof. Brown will present at Ohio State University this April. The paper draws on data from the 1990 U.S. Vital Statistics Report and the 2009 American Community Survey, administered by the U.S. Census Bureau, which asked all respondents if they’d divorced in the past 12 months.
Though overall national divorce rates have declined since spiking in the 1980s, “gray divorce” has risen to its highest level on record, according to Prof. Brown. In 1990, only one in 10 people who got divorced was 50 or older; by 2009, the number was roughly one in four. More than 600,000 people ages 50 and older got divorced in 2009.
What’s more, a 2004 national survey conducted by AARP found that women are the ones initiating most of these breakups. Among divorces by people ages 40-69, women reported seeking the split 66% of the time. And cheating doesn’t appear to be the driving force in gray divorce. The same AARP survey found that 27% of divorcés cited infidelity as one of their top three reasons for seeking a divorce—which is not out of line with estimates of infidelity as a factor in divorce in the general population.
The trend defies any simple explanation, but it springs at least in part from boomers’ status as the first generation to enter into marriage with goals largely focused on self-fulfillment. As they look around their empty nests and toward decades more of healthy life, they are increasingly deciding that they’ve done their parental duty and now want out. These decisions are changing not just the portrait of aging people in the U.S., as boomers swell the ranks of the elderly, but also the meaning of the traditional vow to stay together until “death do us part.”
“Some of those marriages that in previous generations would have ended in death now end in divorce,” says Betsey Stevenson, assistant professor of business and public policy at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania, who studies marriage and divorce. In the past, many people simply didn’t live long enough to reach the 40-year itch. “You can’t divorce if you’re dead,” says Ms. Stevenson.
But that’s not the whole story, given that the bulk of the increase in late-in-life divorce has come among people ages 50-64. As a generation, boomers have changed American notions of marriage—and in the process, they have sown the seeds of their own discontent.
Most sociologists argue that boomers entered marriage with expectations very different from those of previous generations. “In the 1970s, there was, for the first time, a focus on marriage needing to make individuals happy, rather than on how well each individual fulfilled their marital roles,” says Prof. Brown, author of the gray marriage paper.
I haven’t seen comparable statistics for Canada, but in my own practice, I’m struck by how many middle-aged and older people come to me seeking help with the breakdown of their marriages.