Until recently, it would have been fair to say that older people simply did not get divorced. Fewer than 10 percent of those who got divorced in 1990 were ages 50 or older. Today, one in four people getting divorced is in this age group.
It turns out that those high-profile breakups of Tipper and Al Gore, and Maria Shriver and Arnold Schwarzenegger, were part of a trend. Baby boomers, who drove the huge increase in divorce that began during the 1970s and persisted through the early 1980s, are at it again. Just as they have transformed other arenas of U.S. social life, boomers are now reshaping the contours of divorce.
A study I conducted with fellow Bowling Green sociologist I-Fen Lin found that the divorce rate among married couples ages 50 and older was 21/2 times higher for those in remarriages than in first marriages.
The consequences of this "gray divorce" revolution are largely unknown. Still, there are some things we can infer.
When couples divorce in later life, there are fewer years ahead of them than behind, meaning that individuals have limited opportunities to make up for the financial losses often associated with divorce.
Some will have to stay in jobs longer than they would have had they not divorced, or will try to reenter the labor force late in life. Those unable to prolong employment may find themselves in unexpectedly confining circumstances.
For economically secure older adults in good health, a divorce may have minimal negative consequences and actually can be freeing and empowering, at least for the initiator of the divorce. But for less-advantaged older adults, a late-in-life divorce can be devastating.
Whether those who divorce later in life will try their luck again in the marriage market is unclear. Many will undoubtedly remain single, or pursue unmarried, cohabiting relationships that require less commitment and allow them to avoid the legal entanglements of marriage.
One in three baby boomers is currently single, and these boomers are more vulnerable both economically and socially compared with married boomers. They are also in poorer health, raising questions about who will care for them as they transition into old age.
The Beatles, the icon of boomers around the globe, were prescient when they sang, "Will you still need me, will you still feed me, when I'm 64?" Increasingly, the answer is no, as more boomers are calling it quits, choosing to navigate midlife and old age alone.