We examine why the divorce rate among people over 50 is rising.
“Boomer” or “gray” divorce, aka divorce among people currently in their mid-50s to 70s, is skyrocketing. Over the past 20 years, the overall divorce rate in the United States has declined — but for the over-50 age group, the divorce rate has actually doubled, according to 2014 research.
A few years later, this trend is still going strong. An April 2021 report released by the U.S. Census Department found that 34.9 percent of all Americans who got divorced in the previous calendar year were aged 55 or older — aka, baby boomers, or people who might have gray hair (hence the nicknames). Believe it or not, that’s more than twice the rate of any other age group surveyed.
But why the apparent enthusiasm for this intimidating and potentially exhausting process?
We consulted experts about the pull factors driving the older generation to divorce, from self-discovery to finally having an empty nest — and spoke to a woman whose experience on the extreme end of the divorce spectrum taught her some crucial lessons she’s eager to share.
Why are older people getting divorced more now?
With the divorce rate among couples of all ages pacing at around 50 percent, the stigma surrounding the process is significantly lower than it was just a few decades ago. As people in their mid-50s and 70s begin to face age-related issues, the desire to live a more “authentic” life — without their current partner — often comes to the forefront.
“As we live longer, the idea of settling in with someone for 20-30 more years becomes the motivating factor,” explains Jody D’Agostini, a financial advisor from New Jersey whose areas of focus include divorce. “If one party has health issues, the other spouse may not want the eventual role of caretaker. If they’ve experienced a chronic illness, they may want to ‘get healthy’ and work on themselves.”
Of course, the distress that leads to divorce often has deep roots, sometimes going back years. “My children were 30 and 33 at the time of my divorce and they were independent,” says Joyce, 67. “I’d been unhappy for a very long time before my divorce in 2019, but hadn’t wanted to make a move because I wanted to keep the household united. We were both unhappy and going to marriage counseling, but we only had one session a month, which had no momentum — and he wouldn’t speak during them.”
An empty nest meanwhile presents the opportunity for a relationship beyond kids’ watchful eyes — which can be expedited thanks to social media and senior dating sites. It’s a landscape utterly different from the one most people in this age group were familiar with the last time they were dating, offering the chance to connect with new people whose interests align more with theirs — or even reconnect with old flames.
“Couples may have discovered divergent interests that they want to focus on later in life, especially if they have more time and money than they may have had while raising their kids,” says D’Agostini. “Often the death of one or both parents whom they did not want to disappoint might motivate one party, as they can now move on without the family scrutiny from their elders.”
The pandemic push to divorce
As we’re all acutely aware, the pandemic — and more specifically, lockdown — had an enormous and often shattering impact on relationships of all kinds. For marriages already showing cracks, months of isolation often proved the final straw.
“The pandemic forced the older generation to shield themselves from their adult children and grandchildren, and to immediately halt their social activities and relationships outside of their marriage,” explains Holly Davis, a founding partner of the Kirker Davis firm, a divorce and family law firm. “Many couples had to isolate with just their spouse for extended periods of time, which highlighted their unhappiness or incompatibility, just as it did for younger couples.”
What baby boomers should consider before divorcing
D’Agostini recommends that before sitting down to hash out financial matters, spouses should (independently) consult a therapist to process the emotions surrounding the end of their marriage. People should also consider the likelihood of cognitive impairment in the future, and how to broach the subject with any kids. Managing shared friendships moving forward is an often-neglected area of sensitivity, as of course is the division of shared assets.
“Divorce among 50- and 60-somethings can be particularly complicated from a financial perspective given that it often occurs during a couple’s peak earning years and at a point when more significant assets may have been accumulated,” explains D’Agostini. “Owning multiple homes, complex estate structures, nontraditional assets, and what sometimes amounts to extensive financial support for adult children can also muddy the waters.”