Baby Boomers and divorce

March 20, 2012

Sadly, a rather familiar statistic for the last thirty years or so is that the divorce rate in first marriages is about fifty percent. An equally shocking statistic claimed by some demographers and sociologists is that sixty-five percent of “quick rebound” second marriages also end in divorce. Even if this statistic is debatable, the rationale for this claim makes sense: Unhappy marriages are the result of an unfortunate choice of partners – so, change partners and you’ll be happy!

Before World War II, divorce in lower and middle class American families was a relatively rare phenomenon. Social pressure, family traditions, finances, and religious restrictions kept couples together even when they might have wished otherwise. Divorce was pretty much, but certainly not exclusively, limited to the rich, to celebrities, or, of course, to those who had social permission to do so – e.g. desertion, physical brutality, infidelity.

The concept and rate of divorce became more acceptable in the 1960s when men and women marched off to college in unprecedented numbers, when the pill and freedom from unwanted pregnancy triggered the sexual revolution, and feminism began to free women to pursue jobs, careers, and control over their own lives. With all of this, all of us began to feel free, more fluid in how we looked at life and love. Divorce become an accepted part of the social landscape. And when you met a new couple at a party or an event, you were neither shocked nor surprised to find out that they had been married since college or that their present partner was their second or even third spouse.

But if my statistics are right, and about fifty percent of boomers divorced, the other fifty percent did not. And, from my perspective as a fellow boomer, I figured those who didn’t get a divorce were going to make it for the duration. At least that’s what I thought until I saw some of the new statistics which suggest that being a member of AARP doesn’t preclude you from seeking out a divorce attorney.

The New York Times recently reported that today one out of every four divorces were being sought by people fifty years old and older. According to the article, in 2009, over 600,000 people ages fifty and older got a divorce. And the article also projected that in 2030 in excess of 800,000 senior citizens will seek out divorce.

Although, of course, the good old standby of infidelity accounts for about twenty-seven percent of senior separation; the reasons behind this onslaught of “Gray Divorce’s” are surprisingly straightforward.

This new way of divorce is not based on seeking out “new adventures” as much as being “bored” with the present state of affairs. It seems to me that after having endured – for the kids’ sake – their differences about finances, friends, sex, in-laws, and work, once the kids are gone, a lot of couples are looking around and asking themselves – “Is this all there is?”

They’ve done their duty, and most modern medicine is telling them that that being healthy at sixty means you’ve got a good chance at twenty five more healthy years. So, the options seem pretty clear. “It’s now or never. If I don’t go now, I’m trapped for life!”

As a boomer, I do get it, but it makes me sad. I know that as a group, we still want to hang on to certain aspects of the 60s youth culture. I know that we fear boredom more than death. And I know that love can diminish, and domesticity can get boring. But I think that as a generation we often are more open to change that we are to a difficult challenge. Sometimes it’s simply easier to escape than try harder.

Don’t get me wrong. There are real reasons for getting a divorce. And, I’m not irrevocably wed (pun intended) to the concept of “till death do us part.” But, changing partners and signing up at an online over-fifty dating site may not be the answer either!

Al Gini is a professor of business ethics and chair of the department of management at Loyola University Chicago. He is also the co-founder and associate editor of Business Ethics Quarterly,and the author of several books, including My Job, My Self and Seeking the Truth of Things: Confessions of a (catholic) Philosopher.