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Recently, a headline caught my eye. It was about how the divorce rate was on the decline in America. It turns out that Millennials are marrying a little later and are willing to work a little harder to remain married. The Xers too are not getting divorced as much and well, no generation in history has equaled the wild divorce rate of the Baby Boomers. The common saying that 50% of marriages end in divorce is no longer accurate, as the rate now hovers around 40%. Additionally, the percentages quoted are for ALL marriages, and the truth is, first marriages have high odds of lasting whereas second marriages and beyond have a 75% chance of ending. So, for you never-been-married folks, there is a lot of evidence to be optimistic about marriage. But back to those Baby Boomers who were directly responsible for the rocketing divorce rate back in the 70s and 80s, even though overall the rate of divorce has been going down—a new alarming divorce statistic is taking shape: now that Baby Boomers are entering retirement age, they are getting divorced in droves and have doubled the divorce rate for people 50 and older.
Traditionally, divorce was for the young and the middle aged. Most lawyers and sociologists agree that it was rare for older people facing retirement and beyond to get divorced. That has all changed now that the Baby Boomers have entered retirement age. “At a time when divorce is becoming less common for younger adults, so-called ‘gray divorce’ is on the rise: Among U.S. adults ages 50 and older, the divorce rate has roughly doubled since the 1990s. […] Among those ages 65 and older the divorce rate has roughly tripled since 1990.” (Led by Baby Boomers, Divorce Rates Climb for America’s 50+ Population by Renee Stepler, March 9, 2017, pewresearch.org) While divorce has more or less been destigmatized and even perhaps taken lightly by our culture (which is one of the cited reasons for this boom in ‘gray divorce’), the consequences of older people are huge. Financial instability, social isolation and loneliness, and adult children facing complex elder care issues are among the top hardships that come with divorce after retirement. “According to a 2014 Government Accountability Office report to the Senate Special Committee on Aging, a single person age 65 or older needs 79% of the income of a two-person household.” (Being Older Doesn’t Make Divorce Any Wiser: Families Like Mine Fight to Buck Divorce Trend by Teresa S. Collet, Sept. 6, 2018, usatoday.com) Essentially, a couple would walk away from their marriage with an almost 30% deficit in their income. Financial instability is more dangerous for older people in a lot of ways from health issues to the realities of the job market. “Despite the upbeat headline numbers for the jobs report, older people at work may feel marginalized and worry that if they lose their job, finding another well-paying job will be difficult. And it's worse if they’re forced to re-enter the labor market because of divorce.” (This is Why Baby Boomers are divorcing at a Stunning Rate by Angela Moore, Oct. 20, 2018, marketwatch.com) While women tend to suffer more financially post-divorce (though arguably both will do poorly as courts tend to slice retirement money right down the middle which greatly reduces the retirement income of both parties), men tend to suffer greatly socially (though again, both parties suffer as society is still based around married couples and pre-divorce friends may not reach out as much as many social and recreational activities involve pairs). Plus, the reality for all seniors is that loneliness is tough and made all the worse with divorce. “A senior’s social network regularly shrinks due to the death or relocation of old friends, making friendships lost through divorce particularly devastating.” (Being Older Doesn’t Make Divorce Any Wiser: Families Like Mine Fight to Buck Divorce Trend by Teresa S. Collet, Sept. 6, 2018, usatoday.com) Divorce for seniors may on the surface seem not quite as difficult as the children of Baby Boomers are now fully grown. However, complex issues like financial dependent adult children and elderly care makes ‘gray divorce’ especially devastating for the entire family. Divorcees will have to make hard choices about whether they can continue to financially support a dependent adult child (and we are not talking about lazy adults—many seniors have dependent adult children due to mental and physical health issues). Additionally, elder care already is predicted to be a massive burden for Millennials and divorce only makes the situation all the worse. “While every generation experiences caregiver challenges, the Millennials might have an unfortunate convergence of forces that may conspire to create a caregiving crunch—these include debt, distance, and divorce. […] Baby Boomers may force Millennials to ask, who gets the parents?” (From Sunday Brunch to Caregiver Crunch: Millennials Confront Caring for Aging Baby Boomers by Joseph Coughlin, May 15, 2018, forbes.com) When the elderly divorce it's not the parents arguing over child support and custody it is the kids who have to argue about parent support and custody.
Why are these silver Boomers divorcing—especially at an age that people rarely divorce? Some theorize that it is that they view personal satisfaction and self-realization as more important than say duty, tradition, and religion which were reasons why other generations did not get divorced. However, I found an article written by a Rutgers University professor who studied ‘gray divorce’ and interviewed several ‘gray divorcees’ and argued that while this new post-retirement divorce boom is unprecedented, the reasons they are getting divorced are not—in fact, she argues the reason these older couples are getting divorced are fairly old-fashioned. She also saw a pattern that male and female Boomers divorce for different reasons. “Men complained a lot about money-management problems. […] Men also discussed resentment over how their children had been raised, even years after they had left the family home. […] In contrast, women tended to blame their husbands’ addictions to alcohol, drugs, and pornography. […] Women also charged they were the victims of emotional or verbal abuse.” (Baby Boomers are Divorcing for Surprisingly Old-fashioned Reasons by Prof. Jocelyn Elise Crowley, aeon.co) To be sure, many of these retirement age Boomers do cite personal fulfillment as their reason for ending their marriage. However, for the ones where a genuine difference in values or abuse comes into play, I think it is far better to divorce even in later life, as it’s also important to note that one of the factors contributing to this new divorce trend is a longer lifespan. While adding ten to twenty more post-retirement active years is a great trend, if it also means ten to twenty more years of an abusive or toxic marriage, then I see the rationale for later-life divorce. Another issue linked to this ‘gray divorce’ wave is that the stigma surrounding divorce is gone. Our more liberal society might have some unintended consequences. Studies have shown that making divorce socially acceptable causes people who are going through a rough patch either in general or with their marriage (and often it’s impossible to separate the two) to view divorce as a deceivingly easy option. And when it comes to issues of fulfillment, it is a fantasy (and burden placed on your partner) to believe that your spouse should be held responsible for your fulfillment. Going back to school, traveling, or doing volunteer work might make you way happier than divorce, and I think because later-life divorce can have a strong negative impact on both spouses and their families it might be worth toughing it out until sunnier days return.
Jennifer Barnick is a painter and writer. She studied painting at the San Francisco Art Institute. She founded Twenty-two Twenty-eight. “One of the most exciting aspects of Twenty-two Twenty-eight is building a channel for artists and writers to share their work with the world.”
Check out Jennifer’s book. You can read the first short story for free on Amazon here.