How We Boomers Are Changing Divorce in America

The US has the highest divorce rate in the world – with about 43% of marriages ending in divorce. Now we have new information about the rate at which aging baby boomers divorce.

In their paper The Gray Divorce Revolution: Rising Divorce Among Middle-Aged and Older Adults, 1990–2010, Professors Susan L Brown and I-Fen Len analyze census reports and glean several interesting conclusions:

  1. The divorce rate among adults 50 and older doubled between 1990 and 2010.
  2. In contrast, the divorce rate for the population as a whole has stayed flat or maybe even declined slightly.
  3. This group of older adults was responsible for 1 in 4 divorces in the US in 2010.
  4. Since 1990, the prevalence of divorce among older adults has increased, and the prevalence of widowhood has declined.

The authors are careful to note the difference between “prevalence” and “incidence.” Prevalence of divorce measures the marital status of a person at a point in time but does NOT tell us when the divorce occurred. That’s where “incidence” comes in. So a higher prevalence of divorce among older adults could result from a higher incidence of divorce, but it could also indicate a reduced tendency to remarry after a divorce that occurred in the past.

It’s difficult to know what all this means. We know older adults are more likely to be divorced, but we don’t know why. One possible contributor is that older Americans are 50% more likely to be in a remarriage than they were 20 years ago, and the incidence of divorce in remarriage is 2.5 times higher than in a first marriage.

What we can say with some confidence is that more older Americans are going to be living alone, and we can infer – particularly in the case of divorced men – that many of them will be estranged not only from their former spouse but sometimes also from their children. This will place added burdens on public institutions and also on family ties.

I’m not sure where this fits in, but it’s my site so I can just say that I am aware of two cases where a divorced and remarried woman served in a lengthy caregiving relationship with her divorced husband. In one case the woman spent weeks away from her husband caring for her ex-husband as he died of cancer. The marriage appears to have survived, but it had to be strained.