The ``Divorce Boom Among Seniors" that Wasn't
By David Blankenhorn & Tom Sylvester. As appeard in the St. Louis Post Dispatch, Dec. 10, 2003
Are Grandpa and Grandma about to
divorce? Apparently so, according to a spate of recent articles and news stories. The Wall Street Journal has announced a ``divorce boom among seniors." The Associated Press reports that a ``growing legion" of
older Americans are suddenly untying the knot. CBS News similarly describes the ``growing trend of 50, 60, and 70-something year olds who are divorcing after decades of marriage."
In most of
these stories, a journalist interviews a few older people who are divorcing. It's a tough transition, we are told, but these ``gray divorcees" are learning to appreciate their new freedoms. A divorce attorney
usually describes the special challenges facing old people newly divorced. Someone typically cites Viagra as one cause of this late-life breakup boom. Almost always, the reporter explains that today's longer life
spans are helping to drive the trend, since the institution of marriage, which arose a long time ago when people died younger, was never ``designed" to keep couples together for long periods of time after their
children had grown up.
These stories suffer from one flaw: There is no credible evidence of a ``divorce boom" among older American. In fact, available statistics suggest that divorce rates among senior
citizens have remained rather stable at low levels.
It is true that a recent Census Bureau survey estimates that a record-high 2.5 million senior citizens in 2002 reported that their marital status was
``divorced." So that proves that more old folks are getting divorced, right? Actually, it proves no such thing. Instead, what this number likely shows is that more Americans who married and divorced during the
post-1960 ``divorce revolution" are now entering the 65-and-older age category. Such a phenomenon is what scholars call a ``cohort effect." Take this typical scenario: If a woman divorced at age 30 in
1965 (or at age 35 in 1970) and doesn't remarry, she will have joined the ``divorced" group of senior citizens in 2000. Bottom line: Current statistics do not show that more senior citizens are suddenly
becoming divorced adults. The far more plausible explanation is that more divorced adults are aging their way into the ranks of senior citizens.
How many U.S. senior citizens are divorcing? To
learn the answer, we have to look at the divorce rate for that specific age group. In any one year, for every 1,000 married persons age 65 and older, how many in that age category got divorced?
In 1970, for
men, that figure was 1.9. In 1980, it was 1.9. In 1990, it was 2.1. For women, the 1970 figure was 1.3. In 1980, it was 1.4. In 1990, it was 1.4. Not much evidence of a trend
For the years since 1990 … as best we can determine, no one really knows. To the dismay of family scholars, in 1996 the National Center for Health Statistics (NCHS) stopped collecting detailed
data on divorce. Nevertheless, the available Census Bureau evidence strongly suggests that divorce rates among seniors have remained fairly stable.
Consider this bit of evidence. There has been a
slight increase in the percentage of senior citizens who are currently divorced. However, there has been no increase in the percentage of seniors who are currently separated. If we were actually experiencing a
``divorce boom" among older Americans, we would also expect an increase in the proportion of older persons who are ``currently separated." But that has not happened – another indicator that more divorced adults are
becoming senior citizens, rather than more married senior citizens suddenly splitting up.
Finally, contrary to what many journalists are saying, longer life spans do not explain changes in divorce rates.
Today's longer life expectancies are due primarily to sharp drops during the last half of the 20th century in rates of infant and child mortality – a happy fact, but one that has no influence on divorce rates one
way or the other. Life expectancy once one reaches adulthood hasn't changed dramatically in recent decades. Moreover, Americans are getting married at older ages. Therefore, even as Americans are dying
at older ages, the average ``natural" lifespan of a marriage has changed little. People are not divorcing today because they've suddenly discovered that they have a few years longer to live.
So don't worry.
There is no reason to think that the typical grandpa and grandma won't grow older together.