Along with the national debt, global warming, and other harbingers of doom, we have come to expect that the divorce rate will simply continue to rise. Many of society’s ills will, no doubt, continue to increase unabated, but divorce may not be one of them. At least not for those under age 35, for whom the divorce rate has actually decreased significantly between 1990 and 2012, according to data from the 1990 census and 2012 American Community Survey. Although at first this might seem encouraging, the downward trend in divorce for the young is associated with a reduced marriage rate among the same age group. Economics seems to be the culprit. According to a recent Pew Research Center survey (“Record Share of Americans Have Never Married,” 9/24/14), compared with their older counterparts, young adults who have never been married are more likely to cite financial security as the main reason for not being currently married (34% of those ages 25 to 34 compared with 20% of those 35 and older).
Among the rest of the population (those lucky enough to have avoided coming of age during the Great Recession), the divorce rate continues to rise. For all age groups age 35 and older, the divorce rate has increased, but it is most pronounced among older Americans. Among those aged 55 to 64, the risk of divorce has more than doubled since 1990 (from 5 people per 1,000 adults in 1990, to 11 people per 1,000 adults in 2012). For those 65 and older, the divorce rate has more than tripled over the same period. The trend is even more pronounced for women over age 65, who are now divorcing at more than four times the rate than they were in 1990.
What is behind this trend for older Americans? Once again, economics is partly the cause, but not in the same way. The rise in the number of women in the workforce means that older women are now more likely to be financially independent. As a report this month from the Council on Contemporary Families put it, women today are not more likely to be unhappy than they were twenty years ago, but now they have the financial resources to leave a marriage if they are unhappy. At all ages, women are more likely to express dissatisfaction with their marriages and more likely to initiate divorce.
A significant factor in the higher divorce rate among older Americans is the shifting meaning of marriage in America. Where once being a good provider or a good homemaker was enough, now spouses are expected to be good friends and loving companions.
The fact that Americans are living longer and often healthier lives, means that people can look forward to living many years past retirement, and makes the need for happiness in a marriage even more acute. The high divorce rate over the past several decades means that there are now larger numbers of divorced people in the population, and has reduced the stigma formerly associated with divorce.
Add to this the opportunities afforded by social media and online dating, which allow people in their 50’s, 60’s and 70’s to meet someone and begin developing a satisfying relationship before ever stepping outside. A combination of factors has caused an explosion in the divorce rate for older Americans. Should we be worried about the stability of family life, and compromised values? Perhaps not. The trend is largely confined to people who have already raised their children. Naturally, for this group the most important question is personal happiness. Left with an empty nest, or one soon to be, can the idea of marriage until “death do us part” ever be enough when living in misery?