Baby Boomers’ Divorce Rate Doubles

For better or for worse, the landscape of love for seniors looks different today then it did 20 years ago. In a recent article The Huffington Post reported a doubling of the divorce rate over the past two decades among Americans over 50 years old. These findings come from a research paper called The Gray Divorce Revolution by Susan Brown and I-Fen Lin. Comparatively, the divorce rate for the overall population did not change in this period; in fact it achieved a tiny decline.

Back in 1990, 4.9 in 1000 couples over the age of 50 divorced. In 2010, 10 in 1000 couples over 50 divorced. For the overall U.S. population for the same periods, in 1990, 19 in 1000 couples divorced. In 2010, 18 in 1000 couples divorced. So what gives?

According to Brown and Lin’s findings, socio-economic factors significantly impact the likelihood of divorce for Boomers, all of whom are now over the 50 year threshold. The college educated scored lowest in the rate of divorce compared to those without a college level education.

Income showed little impact on the outcome of marriages, but employment status was a significant indicator of divorce among people over 50. Retirees followed by the employed fared best with the lowest divorce rate. The unemployed had the highest rate of divorce.

40-year marriages failed at a rate of 3.2 per 1000, compared to 29 per 1000 for marriages under 10 years. Many of these marriages under the 10 year milestone were remarriages. In these cases the triumph of hope over experience is generally short-lived, phrase borrowed from Samuel Johnson. Remarriages for the middle-aged are 2.5 times more likely to end in divorce than first marriages. The risk of divorce quadruples for remarried people over 65.

Not only are Boomers more likely to divorce, as a group fewer of them are opting for marriage. One third of Boomers today are unmarried compared to 20 percent of people in the same age group back in 1980.

Disadvantages of being single and senior

There can be steep financial and health implications for older people who remain single. Married seniors tend to live a decade longer. Single men face a 32 percent higher mortality rate than married men, compared to 23 percent for single women over married women, according to a study published in the American Journal of Epidemiology. The CDC reports that married people tend to be better at seeking out and obtaining routine and preventative care compared to any other group.

Older single women tend to lose out financially compared to their male counterparts. In the U.S., 35 percent of unmarried women over 65 rely on Social Security as their only source of income, compared to 22 of married beneficiaries over 65. In 2011, the poverty rate for women 65 and older living alone was 18 percent, compared to 12 percent for men 65 and older living alone.

Canada’s Financial Post reported that new changes to the Canadian tax system have wound up penalizing older single people with higher tax rates, because of allowances for Canadian couples over the age of 65 to split nearly all income. Since so many more senior singles in Canada are women, it affects them the most. Statistics Canada reports that 56 percent of people over 65 lived as a couple, but 72 percent of those were men and only 44 percent were women.

Boomers cohabitating

If there is a way to enjoy the extended benefits of being in a couple, while mitigating the risk of divorce, it appears that Boomers in the U.S. have found it – cohabitation. There is a growing trend among Boomers to remain single and shack up instead of get married. According to a new study led by Susan Brown and published in the August edition of the Journal of Marriage and Family, the number of cohabitating couples has doubled in the past ten years, and they enjoy surprisingly stable relationships. Approximately 2.75 million people over 50 were living together but not married in 2010 compared to 1.2 million ten years earlier. Of people aged 50 -64, 12 percent of singles cohabitated together in 2010 compared to 7 percent ten years earlier.

Living together without a marital bind is financially beneficial to older people. Widows and widowers can only keep their spouses’ Social Security benefits if they don’t remarry. Cohabitating partners don’t have to assume the medical expense debt of their significant others.

Older women tend to be less interested in remarriage because they’ve already spent one lifetime taking care of one husband; they don’t want the responsibility of another.

Younger people still view living together as a litmus test for the ultimate goal of marriage. Older people may lack an incentive to get married, according the Stephanie Coontz, author of “Marriage, a History: How Love Conquered Marriage.”

Older people are unencumbered by the externals pressures to live within the confines of traditional social norms. They don’t want the wedding or the gifts. They don’t feel obligated to marry just to make their families happy. Also they don’t want the financial entanglements in case the new marriage goes awry, especially if they’ve already experienced a difficult time extricating themselves from a previous marriage.

If the consensus is that relationships don’t get easier as you get older, the other consensus is that it’s probably worth putting in the work since coupledom is the healthier alternative for older people. Whether it’s through marriage or cohabitation, fiscally, physically, emotionally and socially it makes sense for seniors to couple up.