Gray divorce: More boomers are choosing to go it alone, study says

Published: Sunday, April 15 2012 3:00 p.m. MDT

Deirdre Hill is divorced and isn't looking to change that status. She is one of a growing number of divorced people over the age of 50 who are choosing to be or remain single.

Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

SOUTH SALT LAKE — Deirdre Hill laughs when you ask her if she ever wishes to remarry. "No!" she says.

And she's not alone. At 55 and long divorced, Hill is one in a growing demographic. Overall, America's divorce rate, long one of the highest in the world, has been flattening out — except among middle-aged and older Americans. For two decades, the divorce rate among baby boomers has grown by more than 50 percent, according to recent research from Bowling Green State University in Ohio.

It's happening at a time when the number of adults who never marry is also increasing, for a possible compounded impact. Nearly one-third of those age 46 to 64 are single: either divorced, separated or never married. Back in 1970, that number was less than 13 percent. Research also shows fewer older divorcees choose to remarry than in the past.

Those numbers all raise questions about what it might mean to the safety net that helps to financially protect older Americans, say experts, including the study's authors, Bowling Green sociologists Susan Brown and I-Fen Lin.

Hill's own observations bear out what the two researchers have dubbed the "gray divorce revolution": "Most of the women I know — my demographic — who have a career, most have been divorced," says Hill, who friends call Dee Dee. "None have opted to remarry. People I know who are married, they've been married long term."

The trajectory has been quite clear. About 12 percent of unmarried adults 50 to 64 lived together without marriage in 2010, compared to 7 percent a decade before. From 1980, when 22 percent of middle-aged adults were unmarried, the number climbed to 34 percent in 2009. In 1980, among unmarried adults of that age, 45 percent were divorced, 33 percent widowed and 22 percent who never married. In 2009, the breakdown among the unmarried was 58 percent divorced, 32 percent never married and 10 percent widowed. The researchers found that the divorce rate was 2.5 times higher for those who had been married before than for those in first marriages. The rate of divorce dropped the longer someone was married. And the number of individuals who are widowed has shrunk as the number of single boomers and divorcing boomers has grown.

But what the numbers will mean to the future is less clear. For example, more than 600,000 people 50 and older got divorced in 2009, "but little is known about the predictors and consequences of divorces that occur during middle and later life," Brown and Lin wrote.

Relaxing expectations

Among the changes that may contribute to the increase, Brown said, are "widespread attitudinal shifts. People are more accepting of divorce." As more older adults get divorced or see others dissolving their marriages, they become more accepting of it, "weakening the norm of marriage as a lifelong institution." She has also seen a shift in expectations of marriage from being role-based to focusing more on personal satisfaction and "individual fulfillment." People are less apt to remain in "empty-shell" marriages, she said.

A Pew Center study noted that among boomers, 66 percent said they'd favor divorce to an unhappy marriage. That number was only 44 percent among younger respondents, although they are not as apt to marry in the first place.

Brown, a sociologist and associate director of the Center for Family and Demographic Research at Bowling Green, suggested that people are living longer and healthier and when they hit retirement some may realize they have the potential to live another decade or longer and "maybe the person who was a good spouse 20 years ago doesn't fit" the individual's current needs or wants. It's also true that a lack of money is not the barrier it has traditionally been to divorce. Older Americans tend to be better off than younger Americans.

Dollars and sense

Try out the new DeseretNews.com design!
try beta learn more
Get The Deseret News Everywhere