People around the world, and especially here in the Seattle area which is home to AgingOptions, were shocked at the announcement some months back that America’s first couple of philanthropy, Bill and Melinda Gates, were ending their 27-year marriage. Most people assumed that the co-founder of Microsoft and his wife, who together launched the Gates Foundation, were particularly well-suited, even though the couple has maintained strict privacy about their personal lives. Yet as it turns out, the end of the Gates marriage, which became official in early August, is just one more example of a sociological phenomenon: the rise of so-called “gray divorce.”
We first shared this story on the AgingOptions blog last spring, and we’re bringing it back for another look. It’s a topic that – sadly – affects an increasing number of aging Americans. It also may have a dramatic effect on your retirement planning.
Divorce Rates are Dropping – Except Among Older Adults
This recent NBC News story, reported by author and professor Susan Brown, explains that older Americans are defying a U.S. trend toward declining divorce rates. “Divorce rates have plummeted among young people even as they have risen among older adults,” she writes. “And it’s not just because the population is aging.” Brown points to Bill and Melinda Gates’s divorce as Exhibit A. “Their high-profile split is emblematic of divorce trends in the United States as a whole,” she states.
According to Brown, who is a distinguished research professor and chair of sociology at Bowling Green State University and author of Families in America, married couples who break up are increasingly in the second half of life. “Divorce among middle-aged and older adults is so popular now that researchers like me have a term for it: gray divorce,” she writes. “In the past, many couples would remain in these ‘empty shell’ marriages largely because separations were stigmatized, or couples didn’t believe in divorce.” But that reluctance has changed.
Today One-Quarter of U.S. Divorces Involve a Spouse Over 50
Brown cites research studies which shows that the rate of divorce among people 50 and older doubled in just two decades, between 1990 and 2010. “A generation ago,” she states, “less than 10 percent of divorces involved a spouse over age 50. Nowadays, though, more than one in four people getting divorced in the U.S are over age 50.” She says that this trend reflects much more than simple demographics. While the population is aging, something else is making mature marriages more divorce-prone.
Brown calls the growth in gray divorce “striking” because “it’s at odds with the general pattern in the U.S.” This study from Bowling Green University showed that divorce in America reached its peak in 1980 when the divorce rate approached 23 percent of marriages. By 2018 it had dropped to below 16 percent. “This modest decrease in divorce reflects diverging trends for younger versus older adults,” Brown reports: “Divorce rates have plummeted among young people even as they have risen among older adults.”
Younger People Are Delaying Marriage – or Skipping It Entirely
“A primary reason why divorce has fallen among people under 39 is that fewer of them get married in the first place,” says Brown, and those who do marry are marrying later. Between 1990 and 2017 the median age for first marriages among women rose from about 24 years old to 28, and the age continues to climb. “As marriage has increasingly shifted from a ritual inaugurating adulthood to a capstone experience carried out only after young people complete their education and gain financial independence, the risk of divorce has declined among this age group,” NBC reports.
In sharp contrast, older adults are divorcing at historically high rates. “Reaching one’s silver, or 25th, wedding anniversary is not necessarily a marker of marital permanence,” Brown warns. “Over half of gray divorces occur among couples who have been married more than 20 years.” Brown and her fellow researchers theorize that the major life transitions in midlife put couples at risk.
“Children grow up and move out of the house, leaving couples with an empty nest,” she writes. “Careers wind down as individuals transition to retirement. Without the daily grind of juggling children’s schedules and long hours spent at work, spouses can find they have little in common. Gray divorce is often not precipitated by a singular event, but is instead the result of drifting apart.”
Marriage Today is Built on Personal Fulfillment, Depth of Friendship
Boomer couples, Brown implies, are especially sensitive to the shifting nature of marriage. “Marriages work when both spouses feel a sense of personal fulfillment and satisfaction from their relationship,” she says. “And marriage as a whole is no longer merely an economic bargain or a haven for child-rearing. Marriage is a true partnership and spouses are to be best friends. These high expectations for marital success can be challenging to sustain as relationships evolve over time.”
Brown’s research suggests that midlife married couples today report worse marital quality than their counterparts did a quarter century ago. “It’s likely that couples have higher expectations for their marriages these days, particularly around the gendered division of labor,” she states. But unlike previous generations, older couples today are far less likely to stay together simply to keep up appearances.
Boomers are More Accepting of Divorce
“In the past, many couples would remain in these ‘empty shell’ marriages largely because separations were stigmatized, or couples didn’t believe in divorce,” says Brown. “These days, couples are less willing to remain in empty shell marriages. Societal changes also mean that women are often less economically dependent on their husbands, and thus they can afford to get divorced.” Her research shows that nearly two-thirds of older respondents agree that divorce is the best solution when couples can’t work out their marriage problems. Among younger adults, fewer than half agree with that statement.”
One of the reasons boomers are more accepting of divorce is that many of them have been divorced before. “The baby-boom generation is at the forefront of gray divorce,” Brown observes. “Boomers, those born between 1946 and 1964, as Bill and Melinda Gates both were, came of age during the divorce revolution of the 1970s. Many have married, divorced, and then got remarried.” She notes that the gray divorce rate for couples in remarriages is about 2.5 times higher than for couples in first marriages.
Longer Life Spans are Increasing Prevalence of Later-Life Divorce
It’s clear that increasing longevity plays a role in the rise in senior divorce. “If you live to age 65, you can expect to survive roughly another 20 years, which is a long time to spend in an empty marriage with a spouse you no longer like,” says Brown. She calls marriage “just one in an array of options,” and observes that about one-third of baby boomers are single, a statistic which is likely to grow as more boomers experience either gray divorce or the death of their spouses.
Meanwhile, in the news reports of their plans to divorce, Bill and Melinda Gates jointly announced that they “no longer believe we can grow together as a couple in this next phase of our lives.” As Brown observes, there are two ways to look at this trend. “The gray divorce revolution may be viewed by some as evidence of the erosion of marriage as a lifelong commitment,” she says. “But for many, it means newfound freedom and flexibility as aging adults increasingly reject the confines of empty shell marriages in favor of autonomy and independence.”
A divorce later in life can upend carefully-laid financial plans. Our advice is to make certain that all aspects of your retirement plan are kept up to date, and that they are robust enough so they won’t unravel if life throws you and your spouse a curve along the way.
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(originally reported at www.nbcnews.com)