A recent MarketWatch article on “gray divorce” made me want to revisit the topic. Interestinly while the article itself doesn’t seem to have changed since it was first published in March, the spin the title places on the article has changed twice. Here are three different snapshots of the article with the respective titles:
- Your failing marriage is about to make the retirement crisis worse
- This is why baby boomers are divorcing at a stunning rate
- The good news behind why baby boomers are divorcing at a stunning rate
Regardless of the title, the opening message in all of the versions of the article is the same; older women are fed up with their long marriages and have decided en masse to divorce their boring loyal dude husbands. Underneath an image of women deciding if they should let their men out of jail or abandon them, all three open with:
Looking ahead to the next phase of life can seem pretty dreadful if you can’t stand the person who you’ll be spending it with.
That may be what some boomers are facing. Among U.S. adults ages 50 and older, the divorce rate has roughly doubled since the 1990s, according to a recent Pew Research Center report.
The problem, according to the article, is that we live much longer now, and “we” (women) are now too enlightened to see marriage as a lifetime commitment. Therefore, the boring loyal dudes must go (emphasis mine):
Statistically speaking we’re healthier and probably going to be living a lot longer — possibly 30 years longer — than average retirees once did. The surge in late-in-life — or “gray” — divorce is one possibly unintended consequence of this so-called longevity bonus.
“What’s pushing gray divorce is people are living longer and they feel more entitled to living fully. They’ve contributed to raising children, they want an emotional journey, it’s their time now,” says Lili Vasileff, a certified financial planner and president of Divorce and Money Matters, which specializes in divorce financial planning. “They may have (decades) ahead and don’t want to be unhappy anymore.”
This article and the Pew study it cites are part of a long running pattern in the media. The 2008 American Community Survey (ACS) found that divorce rates for Americans over 50 had increased substantially compared with the same statistic from 1990. This lead to a barrage of breathless media stories about an “explosion” or “surge” in divorce rates as long married couples got older, with a generation of empowered Boomer wives deciding life was too short to remain married to their boring loyal dudes. As the Market Watch story demonstrates, the pattern continues today. Nearly ten years later, we are still getting news stories about this empowering new trend.
And yet, it is all a sham! For starters, the breathless headlines about this new trend are highly misleading. The Pew research report is titled Led by Baby Boomers, divorce rates climb for America’s 50+ population. After two paragraphs explaining this “new” trend, the report finally spills the beans; divorce rates for couples over 50 have remained steady for nearly a decade (perhaps longer):
While the divorce rate for adults 50 and older has risen sharply over the past 25 years, it has remained relatively steady for this age group since 2008, when the Census Bureau began collecting divorce data yearly as part of its American Community Survey.
The change occurred some time between 1990 and 2008. Since then it has remained “relatively steady”. Yet here we are, nearly 10 years later, and Pew is reporting a change that happened between 1990 and 2008 as if it were something new!
But the misinformation campaign is even worse, because even from the beginning the message has been the opposite of reality. While it was true that late life divorce rates had increased significantly from 1990, and it was also true that older women (just like younger women) initiate the vast majority of divorces, the narrative being sold was and is nonsense. There has been no “surge” or “explosion” in Boomer divorce rates as couples aged. In fact, the exact opposite occurred. As Boomers aged, their divorce rates dropped dramatically. As the data in this NCFMR report shows, this was the case for every cohort of Boomers, just like the Silents before them:
What the 2008 and subsequent ACS surveys measured was the fact that Boomers were continuing their life long trend of divorcing at higher rates than the generations that preceded and followed.*
The simple fact is that divorce rates don’t increase late in life. The exact opposite is the case, as divorce rates decline dramatically as the age of the wife increases:
There is an obvious explanation for this, as divorce rates are driven by women, and women’s options drop dramatically as they get older:
The reality is even bleaker than the chart above would suggest for older women in the Sexual Market Place (SMP) and Marriage Market Place (MMP). Older men’s higher remarriage rates come at a time of SMP strength, as Rolo’s chart predicts. Most of them don’t need to remarry to be successful in the SMP. Older women on the other hand tend to end up terribly alone if they don’t remarry, as the 2004 AARP survey on late life divorce discovered (emphasis mine):
Almost 9 in 10 men (87%) dated after their divorce, compared to 8 in 10 women (79%)… Among those who dated after the divorce, more than half of men (54%) but fewer women remarried (39%).
Many women, especially those who have not remarried
(69%), do not touch or hug at all sexually. An even larger majority of women who have not remarried do not engage in sexual intercourse (77% saying not at all), in comparison with about half of men (49%) who have not remarried.
The AARP survey painted a truly bleak picture for women who divorce late in life, showing that nearly 70% of the women didn’t remarry, and failing to remarry for women meant living in a sexual desert, not even getting hugs! And yet, fitting with the media narrative, the AARP survey chose a cover image of a lonely old man devastated by divorce.