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

Published: Thursday, July 2 2015 1:18 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) 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.

Smith's tix General Manager Deirdre Hill at her office Monday, April 9, 2012.  Deirdre is divorced and isn't looking to change that status, she is one of a growing number of 50-plus divorced people who are choosing to be or remain single and what that means  to the structure, economics of family and safety nets. (Scott G Winterton, Deseret News) Smith's tix General Manager Deirdre Hill at her office Monday, April 9, 2012. Deirdre is divorced and isn't looking to change that status, she is one of a growing number of 50-plus divorced people who are choosing to be or remain single and what that means to the structure, economics of family and safety nets. (Scott G Winterton, Deseret News)

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.

Smith's tix General Manager Deirdre Hill at her office Monday, April 9, 2012.  Deirdre is divorced and isn't looking to change that status, she is one of a growing number of 50-plus divorced people who are choosing to be or remain single and what that means to the structure, economics of family and safety nets. (Scott G Winterton, Deseret News) Smith's tix General Manager Deirdre Hill at her office Monday, April 9, 2012. Deirdre is divorced and isn't looking to change that status, she is one of a growing number of 50-plus divorced people who are choosing to be or remain single and what that means to the structure, economics of family and safety nets. (Scott G Winterton, Deseret News)

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.

Smith's tix General Manager Deirdre Hill at her office Monday, April 9, 2012.  Deirdre is divorced and isn't looking to change that status, she is one of a growing number of 50-plus divorced people who are choosing to be or remain single and what that means to the structure, economics of family and safety nets. (Scott G Winterton, Deseret News) Smith's tix General Manager Deirdre Hill at her office Monday, April 9, 2012. Deirdre is divorced and isn't looking to change that status, she is one of a growing number of 50-plus divorced people who are choosing to be or remain single and what that means to the structure, economics of family and safety nets. (Scott G Winterton, Deseret News)

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

Still, money is an issue, according to Janice Green, a divorce attorney from Texas who wrote "Divorce After 50" and has addressed that topic on NPR's "Talk of the Nation," AARP's website and elsewhere. Older individuals have less time to make up any financial losses. "They have fewer years to retire debt and experience recovering their portfolios by riding the markets up and down. That permeates all aspects of divorce."

Smith's tix General Manager Deirdre Hill at her office Monday, April 9, 2012.  Deirdre is divorced and isn't looking to change that status, she is one of a growing number of 50-plus divorced people who are choosing to be or remain single and what that means to the structure, economics of family and safety nets. (Scott G Winterton, Deseret News) Smith's tix General Manager Deirdre Hill at her office Monday, April 9, 2012. Deirdre is divorced and isn't looking to change that status, she is one of a growing number of 50-plus divorced people who are choosing to be or remain single and what that means to the structure, economics of family and safety nets. (Scott G Winterton, Deseret News)

She told the AARP that financial survival "is the primary reason divorce clients in this age group have a level of anxiety and concern that's off the charts — or so I've observed. They know the financial stakes are high."

Because baby boomers as a group are better-educated and typically have more financial stability than younger generations, but they are also less traditional than older generations, the researchers wanted to look specifically at how being unmarried would impact them. They figured that "the baby boomers are not immune to the vulnerabilities associated with being unmarried," they wrote.

They wanted to see if the dynamics that lead to why an adult is single in later years, with well-documented financial and social impact, hold true for boomers: Adults who never married are more prone to poverty and the need for safety net programs, while the divorced typically have higher incomes. What about the safety net?

Those who are single because a spouse died may have stronger family ties and they don't co-habit as often. They also may have a safety net in the form of survivor benefits from Social Security.

Smith's tix General Manager Deirdre Hill at her office Monday, April 9, 2012.  Deirdre is divorced and isn't looking to change that status, she is one of a growing number of 50-plus divorced people who are choosing to be or remain single and what that means to the structure, economics of family and safety nets. (Scott G Winterton, Deseret News) Smith's tix General Manager Deirdre Hill at her office Monday, April 9, 2012. Deirdre is divorced and isn't looking to change that status, she is one of a growing number of 50-plus divorced people who are choosing to be or remain single and what that means to the structure, economics of family and safety nets. (Scott G Winterton, Deseret News)

Of those who had never married, they found a dearth of social supports such as Social Security spouse and widow benefits. Those account for half of income for people who are widowed or divorced after 65, the researchers said. "The current safety net will not be able to provide sufficient protection to an increasing share of unmarried boomer women when they reach old age," they said.

The Center for American Progress said in 2008, 23 percent of unmarried women 60 and older lived in poverty. It said unmarried women, especially single mothers and the elderly, make up the biggest share of adults who need safety-net programs. Many won't qualify for those programs. A demographer from the Brookings Institution pointed out to the Kansas City Star that boomers tend to have fewer children than previous generations, which may mean less support in their old age.

It's not an issue that should be ignored, the study authors said. "As the U.S. population ages, the number of persons ages 50 and older that experience divorce will continue to climb by one-third, even if the divorce rate remains unchanged. The rise in divorce among middle-aged and older adults is not only likely to shape the health and well-being of those who experience it directly, but also to have ramifications for the well-being of family members (e.g. children and grandchildren) and intensify the demands placed on the broader institutional support systems available to middle-aged and older adults," they wrote.

True believers

While choosing to remain single is a growing trend, it's certainly far from unanimous. The Deseret News interviewed Tony, a 71-year-old man who's divorcing for the third time. He will, he says, keep trying because he believes in love and family and wants that. "I truly believe that I am lovable," he said. "I know how much I have to give and it can be unconditional, infinite."

Living together without marriage isn't an option, said Tony, who asked that his last name not be used. "That's not me. I've never had relationships outside of marriage. Fellowship, companionship — it's all important to me. I don't want to grow old alone." He is, he said, a traditionalist.

Hill, a general manager at SmithsTix, doesn't entirely discount marrying again. "I guess you never know, but it's not something I'm considering. I have friends who would love nothing more than to be married. They enjoy that part of their life. Married. Hmmm. What would I be willing to give up to be married?" she asked, noting her social life was more limited when she was married.

She is not particularly troubled that her single status may leave her without support or resources as she grows old. "Who said we all die alone? It's true. I think honestly I have a better chance of not dying alone if I have good friends and a healthy social life. Family can be a little iffy."

Programs are springing up across the country to help older individuals experiencing or moving toward divorce. At the United Methodist Church of the Resurrection in Leawood, Kan., for example, there are gender-based classes to address common issues.

For those who want to save a failing marriage, the Wall Street Journal recently offered advice from a long-term study, not yet published, by University of Denver researchers. It found that even if you can't get your spouse to go into counseling, you should go. Research found that seeking help in relationship skills improves the marriage of those who go alone as much as it does those who attend as a couple, Still, the therapists said, there are even more benefits when both partners get help.

Marilyn Katz, an insurance expert and author of hundreds of articles about retirement, said retiring single is harder than retiring married for both sexes financially. Single people have to prepare carefully. Her advice is to start planning for retirement early and for those with a spouse to think as well about what they'd do if they lost the spouse, regardless of cause. Those who know they'll be single should save a larger percentage of their earnings and reduce their cost of living, if possible.

EMAIL: lois@desnews.com Twitter: Loisco

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