Sorry, But There's No Legion of 'Divorcees'

David Blankenhorn and Thomas Sylvester , St. Louis Post-Dispatch, 12/10/2003

It is true that a recent Census Bureau survey estimates that a record-high 2.5 million senior citizens in 2002 reported their marital status as "divorced." But does that prove that more old folks are getting divorced? Actually, it proves no such thing. Instead, what this number likely shows is that more Americans who married arid divorced during the post-1960 "divorce revolution" are now entering the 65-and-older age category, and therefore are being counted as divorced seniors... Consider this bit of evidence. There has been a slight increase in the percentage of senior citizens who are currently divorced. However, there has been no increase in the percentage of seniors who are separated. If we were actually experiencing a "divorce boom" among older Americans, we would also expect an increase in the proportion of older persons who are "currently separated."

Read the Article >>

Subjects: Divorce, Marriage

More by: David Blankenhorn and Thomas Sylvester

Are grandpa and grandma about to divorce? Apparently so, according to a spate of recent articles and news stories. The Wall Street Journal has announced a divorce boom among seniors. The Associated Press reports a "growing legion" of older Americans suddenly untying the knot. CBS News similarly describes the "growing trend of 50-, 60-, and 70- something-year-olds who are divorcing after decades of marriage."

In most of these stories, a journalist interviews a few older people who are divorcing. It's a tough transition, we are told, but these "gray divorcees" are learning, to appreciate their new freedoms. A divorce attorney usually describes the special challenges facing old people newly divorced. Someone typically cites Viagra as one cause of this late-life breakup boom.

Almost always, the reporter explains that today's longer life spans are helping to drive the trend, since the institution of marriage, which arose a long time ago when people died younger, was never "designed" to keep couples together for long periods of time after their children had grown up.

These stories suffer from one flaw: There is no credible evidence of a "divorce boom" among older Americans. In fact, available statistics suggest that divorce rates among senior citizens have remained rather stable at low levels.

It is true that a recent Census Bureau survey estimates that a record-high 2.5 million senior citizens in 2002 reported their marital status as "divorced." But does that prove that more old folks are getting divorced? Actually, it proves no such thing. Instead, what this number likely shows is that more Americans who married arid divorced during the post-1960 "divorce revolution" are now entering the 65-and-older age category, and therefore are being counted as divorced seniors.

How many U.S. seniors are actually divorcing? In 1970, for every 1,000 married men 65 and older, 1.9 got divorced. In 1980, the figure was 1.9. In 1990, it was 2.1. For women, the 1970 figure was 1.3. In 1980, it was 1.4. In 1990, it was 1.4. Not much of a trend there.

And for the years since 1990, as best we can determine, no one really knows, because in 1996, the National Center for Health Statistics stopped collecting detailed data on divorce.

Nevertheless, the available Census Bureau evidence strongly suggests that divorce rates among seniors have remained fairly stable.

Consider this bit of evidence. There has been a slight increase in the percentage of senior citizens who are currently divorced. However, there has been no increase in the percentage of seniors who are separated. If we were actually experiencing a "divorce boom" among older Americans, we would also expect an increase in the proportion of older persons who are "currently separated."

Finally, contrary to what many journalists are saying, longer life spans do not explain changes in divorce rates. Today's longer life expectancies are due primarily to sharp drops during the last half of the 20th century in rates of infant and child mortality – a happy fact, to be sure, but not one that affects divorce rates one way or the other. Life expectancy once one reaches adulthood hasn't changed dramatically in recent decades.

So don't worry. There is no reason to think that the typical grandpa and grandma won't grow older together.

This article originally appeared here.

Follow

Institute for American Values, 420 Lexington Avenue, Room 1706, New York, NY 10170

212.246.3942