In 1990, one in 10 people who got divorced was over the age of 50.
In 2010, it was one in four.
All the while, the divorce rate of the entire U.S. population has remained steady.
The graying of America has spilled into divorce statistics.
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Three years ago, as people around the country talked about the shocking news that long-married high school sweethearts Al and Tipper Gore were getting a divorce, two sociologists at Bowling Green State University in northwestern Ohio sat in their college office doing exactly the same thing.
How unusual, they said, to get a divorce after 40 years.
"Who gets divorced after that long?" Susan L. Brown asked her colleague, I-Fen Lin.
A question like that is anything but rhetorical for two professors of human nature.
And so, she and Lin tackled answering that question in a study — and what they found is not what they expected.
"We were really floored when we did the calculations," Brown said.
What they had thought was an aberration — a four-decade marriage ending in divorce — was actually an emerging trend, an increase in what they call the gray divorce rate.
That rate has doubled, Brown said. "And we don't know what it means."
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There is considerable speculation about why more older people are getting divorced, but there is little evidence to back it up.
Baby boomers (born from 1946 to 1964) were the first to divorce and remarry in large numbers. They came of age when divorce was becoming more common and acceptable.
The early boomers started turning 50 in 1996, at a time when the number of divorces was rising.
Some 643,000 people over the age of 50 in the United States got divorced in 2010, Brown found. In 1990, there were 206,000 divorces.
Many boomers were children of divorce and many got divorced themselves. And, even if they remarried, they were still at risk of becoming a gray divorcee because remarriages are two and a half times more likely to end in divorce than first marriages — a statistic made even more alarming by the fact that more than half of 50+ adults who got divorced in 2010 were in remarriages.
That number is expected to climb as the proportion of the older adult population in remarriages rises. While Brown and Lin didn't break down the numbers to find out if each subsequent remarriage is more fragile than the last, Brown said, "Other research has shown that the more divorces one has already experienced, the more likely one is to divorce again. This should be true for older adult divorce, too."
The length of the marriage is also a factor — the shorter it is, the more fragile it is. The rate of divorce for those married under a year to nine years is 10 times greater than the rate of divorce for those married 40 years or longer.
And, the cultural shift that has made divorce and remarriage more acceptable may be the biggest — though it isn't the only — reason more and more people over the age of 50 are getting divorced.
Many are less willing to stay in a loveless marriage, the researchers found. They're living longer and want that life to be happy.
And they — women, especially — are no longer trapped in a bad marriage because they don't have the money to get out of it. According to a 2004 AARP survey, 66 percent of gray divorces are initiated by women. Many career women in the boomer generation are nearing retirement with solid savings, pensions and Social Security.
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Even in the unlikely event that the divorce rate remains steady for the next 20 years (a conservative assumption, based on the current trend), the number of divorced people over the age of 50 would rise to more than 828,000 by 2030 simply because there will be more people over 50 to get divorced.
That's a lot of older people who will have no spouse to help them — economically or socially.
If you get divorced at 40, you still have time to build a nest egg. At 60, not so much.
Where will they turn? To their children?
Not without negative consequences, most likely. Asking adult children to provide social support or be a caregiver may weaken family ties that are already strained by the divorce itself, Brown and Lin found. Plus, kids often live too far from their aging parents to help much.
So, what's left? Society as a whole. Public money. Institutions. The government.
"A decline in economic well-being (unmarried baby boomers are four times as likely to be poor and twice as likely to be disabled than their married counterparts) following divorce would suggest a greater reliance on public rather than private forms of support, possibly meaning a rise in Medicaid and Supplemental Security Income usage," the sociologists said.
And yet, when there is talk about the future of Social Security or Medicare, gray divorce isn't factored in, Brown said.
How it will affect society is wide open for future research — and not just by sociologists and demographers, she added, calling on economists, therapists and lawyers to start studying the ramifications of late-life divorce.
"When we think about family change, we think about the young," Brown said. "But there's an interesting phenomenon taking place at the other end of the age spectrum, too."
Patti Ewald can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8746.
This article has been revised to reflect the following correction: In 1990, one in 10 people who got divorced was over the age of 50. In 2010, it was one in four.