Rising Divorce among Middle-Aged and Older Adults

With the highest divorce rate in the world, the United States has received rampant attention over the years—particularly in terms of how the process of divorce impacts young families and children. However, the proportions of ever divorced, currently divorced, and married at least twice are highest among individuals aged 50 and older. Yet, research to date virtually ignores divorce that occurs among middle-aged and older adults.

Based on demographic projections, researchers have forecasted that divorce risk would increase for older adults as the baby boom generation reached middle adulthood and old age. However, no empirical evidence to support this claim existed until recently. Researchers from the Department of Sociology at Bowling Green State University examined changes in the divorce rate among persons aged 50 and older from 1990 to 2010. Indeed, their research supports the notion that the divorce risk is higher for today’s older adults than it was for those in the past.

To estimate today’s divorce rate among middle-aged and older adults aged 50 and older the researchers conducted analyses using the 2010 American Community Survey. They compared these data with the 1990 age-specific divorce rate data from the U.S. Vital Statistics. Additionally, the researchers were able to examine major correlates of divorce today among this age group, including demographic characteristics, economic resources, and marital biography (marriage order and duration).

Results indicate that the divorce rate among adults aged 50 and older has doubled between 1990 and 2010. Twenty-five percent of divorces in 2010 occurred to individuals age 50 or older. The rate of divorce was 2.5 times higher for those in remarriages versus first marriages; however, divorce rate declined as marital duration rose. In other words, divorce rate is lowest for those in long-term first marriages. The divorce rate is higher among middle-aged versus older adults; however, the divorce rate has increased for both groups and the rise has been more pronounced among older adults. With regard to demographic characteristics, the divorce rate is higher among women than men, non-Whites than Whites, and those with a high school diploma compared with a college degree. The divorce rate is highest among the unemployed.

In sum, this research supports the claim that divorce is becoming a common experience among older adults. Based on a wealth of data regarding the negative effects of marital dissolution through widowhood, we know that the loss of a spouse in older adulthood is detrimental to individual well-being. Divorce may have similar negative consequences, but additional research is essential in order to determine the effects of divorce on individual well-being in later life. The limited research to date suggests that divorced older adults are less able to rely on adult children for support due to decreased interaction and weaker ties following divorce, smaller family size (fewer children to offer support), and greater geographic distance between children and their aging parents. This may translate into a greater burden placed on society as older adults are less able to rely on familial sources of support.

Brown, SL & Lin I-F (2012). The gray divorce revolution: Rising divorce among middle-aged and older adults, 1990–2010. Journal of Gerontology Series B: Psychological Sciences and Social Sciences, 67, 731–741.


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