Boomers love to do everything their own way, and they are out in front on divorce, too. While the overall divorce rate in the United States has decreased since 1990, it has doubled for those over age 50.
Reasons vary: Longer lives mean more years with an incompatible spouse; no kids to use as a reason to stay together; less stigma about splitting; more women working, some outearning their spouses; and a remarriage failure rate of 60 percent.
The surge has spawned the term "gray divorce." As Jay Lebow, a psychologist at the Family Institute at Northwestern University, says, "If late-life divorce were a disease, it would be an epidemic."
One out of three boomers will face older age unmarried, says Susan Brown, codirector of the National Center for Family & Marriage Research at Bowling Green State University in her new study "The Gray Divorce Revolution."
That's significant. The fact that onetime legally bound partners have gone their separate ways later in life — or are single by choice or circumstances — has many personal and societal ramifications.
Paying on your own
Even if not divorced, older adults can be vulnerable financially in today's economy. But a split-up hardly helps. "You end up with only half of what you had when you were married, and half can feel like nothing," says Ginita Wall, a San Diego CPA and certified divorce financial analyst.
"Keep in mind that many consequences of divorcing later in life revolve around one fact: less time to recover financially, recoup losses, retire debt and ride the waves of booms and busts," says Janice Green, an Austin, Texas, family law attorney and author of Divorce After 50.
More than half of all workers or their spouses have less than $25,000 in household savings and investments, according to the 2011 Retirement Confidence Survey, published by the nonpartisan Employee Benefit Research Institute. Women also still earn less than men and have a longer life expectancy, which puts them at greater economic risk. "Once women wind up older and alone, whether it's widowed, divorced or never married, they're at a fairly high rate of poverty, on average 20 percent," says Heidi Hartmann, president of the Institute for Women's Policy Research.
Singles will also depend more on public benefits, such as Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid, according to Maya Rockeymoore, a Social Security expert. With the oldest of the 78 million boomers turning 85 in 2031, the government tab could be staggering. In 2021, Medicare alone is expected to cost taxpayers $1.1 trillion — up from $586 billion in 2012.
To stay afloat, some singles, like Eileen Lewis, 66, take in boarders. Divorced at 50 after a two-decade marriage, she rents out a room in her Catonsville, Md., home. The income helps her pay her utilities, gas and part of her mortgage — and enabled her to take a cruise, "something I never would have been able to do before," she says.