By Susan L. Brown and I-Fen Lin
Bowling Green State University
In contrast to the seeming stabilization of divorce rates for the general population over the past two decades, the gray divorce rate has doubled: Married individuals aged 50 and older, including the college-educated, are twice as likely to experience a divorce today as they were in 1990. For married individuals aged 65 and older, the risk of divorce has more than doubled since 1990. Researchers explain why.
Contrary to the popular notion that divorce is increasing in the United States, the divorce rate has changed relatively little in recent decades. Marriages are not much more likely to end through divorce these days than they were 30 years ago. Yet this overall pattern of stability obscures important variations by class and age.
Generally, education tends to be protective against divorce. In fact, the marriages of college-educated couples seem to be lasting longer than they were 30 years ago. Among couples aged 40-49, the divorce rate for those with a college degree is about 50 percent lower than the rate for those with a high school diploma. This differential holds for younger adults ages 25-39, too.
But in contrast to the seeming stabilization of divorce rates for the general population over the past two decades, the gray divorce rate has doubled: Married individuals aged 50 and older, including the college-educated, are twice as likely to experience a divorce today as they were in 1990. For married individuals aged 65 and older, the risk of divorce has more than doubled since 1990.
Higher standards, more opportunities, longer lives, women at work help explain the trend
One reason for this is what we might call the divorce echo effect. Older individuals are more often in remarriages, not first marriages, and remarriages have long been more likely than first marriages to end through divorce. People who have been divorced in the past are more willing to divorce again in the event a marriage becomes unsatisfying. In contrast, some proportion of those in first marriages are unwilling to divorce even if they have an unsatisfying marriage.
But we are also seeing an increase in the breakup rate of older people in their first marriages. More than half of gray divorces are to couples in first marriages. Long-term marriages are not immune to divorce—more than 55 percent of gray divorces involved a split for couples who had been married more than 20 years. Many of these marriages have not been marked by severe discord. Rather, the partners have simply grown apart. There is no evidence that there are more such “empty shell” marriages than in the past, but fewer older adults seem willing to remain in them.
In part, this reflects the shifting meaning of marriage in contemporary America. Today, most people hold marriage to a higher standard than in the past. Being a good provider or a good homemaker is not enough. Spouses are supposed to be best friends and confidantes. Marriage should be a source of personal happiness and fulfillment. If spouses no longer derive satisfaction from their marriage, divorce is seen as a viable solution and carries far less social stigma then the past.
It may also be that the barriers to divorce at an older age have fallen markedly because Americans are living longer and healthier lives. For one thing, couples in their 60s can expect to live another 20 or more years, which is a long time to spend with someone you don’t have much in common with anymore. For another, disability rates have been declining. Additionally, because of longer life spans and larger numbers of divorced people in the population, the opportunities for people in their 50s, 60s, and 70s to meet new partners are much greater than in earlier eras. Online dating is surging among this demographic.
Finally, the rise in female labor force participation over the past several decades offers women in particular a way out of marriage that was not as widely available in the past. This is another reason why gray divorce is increasing. At all ages, women are more likely than men to express dissatisfaction with their marriages and to initiate divorce. It is unlikely that women over 50 are more unhappy than in the past, but these women are less likely to be financially dependent on their husbands and more likely to have the resources to call it quits.
Education doesn’t protect for gray divorce
Gray divorce is a recent phenomenon and scholars are just beginning to investigate its antecedents and consequences. For the most part, factors traditionally associated with divorce also appear to be predictive of gray divorce. But there is one notable exception: education. As noted above, on average, education tends to be protective against divorce. As a proxy for socioeconomic status, it is indicative of financial security. Education facilitates economic security, which helps to stabilize marriages. Not surprisingly, many couples who get divorced point to disputes over money as the reason why they broke up. Having plenty of money means one less thing for couples to fight about.
But this linkage only holds for younger and middle aged adults. For older adults, the risk of divorce does not differ much by education level. A college degree does not provide protection against later life divorce. The older college graduate, even one in a first marriage, faces essentially the same divorce rate as the older high school graduate.
Perhaps the economic advantages that stabilized college graduates’ marriages in the child-raising years now work in the opposite direction, making it financially possible for dissatisfied couples to split up, whereas those with fewer resources (i.e., the high school educated) feel compelled to stay together for financial reasons. Their careers are winding down, and they would not have time to recoup the economic losses often associated with divorce. Nor may they be as likely to have the savings cushion to minimize the financial shock.
Alternatively, this pattern simply may reflect the fact that for older adults, the level of financial resources one has is less tied to education level. It is younger cohorts for whom education level is closely linked to earnings (which is why so many young people are pursuing a college degree). The role of education for economic security differs across cohorts, and this has ramifications for how education is linked to the risk of divorce across the life course.
Consequences of gray divorce related to financial security and health
The consequences of a gray divorce are also likely to be different than those of early divorce. For individuals in their prime, people who are healthy and financially secure, divorce can bring a new lease on life. Spouses who felt tied down and constrained are now able to pursue their own goals, reinventing themselves in their third age.
At the other end of the spectrum, those without adequate economic resources or who are in poor health face a tremendous struggle following divorce. Now they must go it alone without the buffer of social and economic support that spouses provide. Older adults are unlikely to recoup financial losses associated with divorce, and this is particularly true for women who were out of the labor force for decades. A woman who divorces in her 20s and 30s may experience a financial loss, but she has time to improve her earnings power, often through increased education or longer work hours, and she also has a better chance of remarrying someone with higher income than her first husband. For older women, the time horizon is simply too short—they can’t spend 20 years in the labor force building up their savings.
Our research shows that, on average, gray divorceds have only 20 percent as much wealth as older married couples. Older divorceds are also disadvantaged relative to widoweds. The net wealth of those who were widowed after age 50 is more than twice as high as the net wealth of gray divorceds. In short, individuals who divorce later in life and remain single typically do not enjoy the economic cushion that marrieds and even widoweds experience. And Social Security payments do not close the gap—on average, gray divorceds can count on less than $14,000 per year from Social Security.
Today, one out of every four people experiencing divorce is over age 50. Nearly one in ten is 65 or older. This raises critical questions about how gray divorce is reshaping the aging experience in the U.S. Although for some older adults a gray divorce may be liberating, for others who are less advantaged it is a devastating experience with long-term negative consequences for their own lives and for society as a whole. It is essential that we investigate in more detail the distinctive dynamics of late life divorce, along with the factors that allow some adults, but not others, to successfully steer their marriages through the new terrain of aging in contemporary America.
For Further Information
Susan L. Brown, Professor and Chair, Department of Sociology
Bowling Green State University
(419) 372-9521; firstname.lastname@example.org
I-Fen Lin. Associate Professor, Department of Sociology
Bowling Green State University
(419) 372-8517; email@example.com