En español | Did boomers "invent" divorce? According to Andrew Cherlin, author of The Marriage-Go-Round, boomers going bust were largely responsible for the 250 percent jump in the U.S. divorce rate from the 1960s to the end of the 1970s. Today, with roughly 50 percent of boomers having weathered at least one divorce — and with significant numbers of them now in a second or third marriage — shouldn't they be too worn out (and too broke) to keep splitting up?
Apparently not. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, 17.5 percent of people age 50 and up were either divorced or separated as of 2011. That stat alone may not suffice to raise eyebrows, but the fact that boomers are the only age group whose divorce rate is rising should shake us up a bit. Susan Brown and I-Fen Lin, the Bowling Green State University professors whose 2014 study revealed this statistical "distinction," report that more than 1 in 4 people who identified their marital status as "divorced" within the past 12 months were 50 or older.
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What's behind the rash of rifts? There are two competing theories:
1. It's statistical. Thanks to rising life expectancies, boomers have simply had more time on earth to experience divorce and remarriage. Other age groups will eventually catch up.
2. It's volitional. The other hypothesis — the one I subscribe to — is that the culture they grew up in has made boomers unusually prone to divorce. Coming of age in the midst of a sexual revolution, boomers redefined marriage as a consensual-but-not-necessarily-eternal union. They also were the first generation to cohabit before marriage. (Cohabitation per se does not undermine subsequent marriages, recent research shows. But it may have led boomers to downplay the value of staying with one person forever.)
Another factor: Boomers are the earliest beneficiaries of fitness and health breakthroughs (including widespread plastic surgery and medical interventions) that have made it feasible to leave your 60-year-old spouse and start strutting your stuff again in the dating market.
That said, I believe something deeper may be at work here — something that speaks to the essential character of the boomer generation. To my way of thinking, boomers still want it all, and that includes emotional and sexual passion. Cushioned by a reasonably plush economy as they grew up, they had the leeway to experiment with dating, drugs, work and relationships. Many shucked off first marriages that seemed in danger of repeating the purely obligational model of their parents' marriages. Though clearly unprepared for the emotional carnage that ensued, boomers championed no-fault divorce and the primacy of love, determined to battle tradition in order to follow their hearts.
The current high divorce rate for those over 50 suggests that boomers have not given up on romantic love — and, further, that they refuse to let their aging bodies curtail that ideal. To get an idea of how radically boomer marital patterns differ from those of our parents, consider this statistic: In the 1950s, less than 3 percent of men and women over 50 were divorced. As indicated above, the current percentage (17.5) is nearly six times higher.
So where does that leave those of us who are on the verge of a new marriage — or simply concerned about the health of our present union? To me it means watch your back, take care of your front and don't ever put love on autopilot. Just because we're getting older doesn't mean we'll stick with a pairing that is no longer meaningful, loving or rewarding. The only way to solidify our generation's fragile attachment to marriage is to actively nurture love, sexuality, friendship and fun into old age.
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