The generation that once embraced the smiley face and peace symbol as cultural logos is now divorcing in historic fashion.
Divorce rates are higher for baby boomers than for any previous generation, while rates are declining, slightly, for society as a whole.
New research and census data reveal an unprecedented trend of Americans splitting apart as they turn grayer: In 2009, people ages 50 and older were twice as likely to divorce as their counterparts in 1990.
Researchers have just begun to explore why. They know that, for many boomer couples, the kids are out of the house and it’s time to face reality. Often, one spouse has fallen for someone else at work.
Professional women, a boomer hallmark, are better able to get by on their own. And longer life spans probably figure into the phenomenon, experts say. People in their 50s or early 60s may expect to have a few more healthy decades left, so why spend them unhappy?
“We haven’t put much focus on divorce among older adults. The thought was, well, they don’t get divorced — their transition is into widowhood,” said Susan L. Brown, a sociology professor at Bowling Green State University and co-director of the National Center for Family & Marriage Research, which released a study on the “Gray Divorce Revolution” last month.
“What we’re now seeing raises questions about what predicts a divorce later in life and what are the consequences for society,” she said. “For individuals, the effects are going to be variable depending on whether you’re the dumper or the dumpee
“I’d think it would be terribly stressful to get divorced at this stage in life.”
For 56-year-old Ellen, 35 years of marriage came down to this: A montage of words and images she recently clipped from magazines, the final assignment in a 10-week course for women newly divorced or hurtling that way.
“Starting over,” she snipped out and glued to a sheet of paper to present to the group.
Seven middle-aged women gathered at a Leawood church. Most had lost their husbands to other women, substance abuse or both.
Ellen’s montage — or “vision page” as termed by Midlife Divorce Recovery, sponsor of the course — reflected her effort to come to grips with a future she never imagined.
“Life lessons,” “trust,” “makeover,” the clippings read.
She affixed a picture of boxing gloves to one corner of the page and, on the backside, an illustrated birthday cake with lots of flaming candles above the word, “Oh!”
Ellen, whose marriage produced three now-grown children, had been dreading this exercise.
“It turned out to be cathartic,” she said, although she did not feel secure enough to allow her full name to be used in the newspaper. Her family has felt enough jolts.
“We’re seeing divorces after 30, 40 years of marriage and people who haven’t been there can’t imagine the devastation,” said Midlife Divorce Recovery’s founder, Suzy Brown, 65, of Kansas City.
“A lot of baby-boomer spouses, usually the wives, went to college but never had much chance to hone their skills. They chose to stay home and raise children, as did a lot of stay-at-home dads. Now they’re on their own and wondering who’s going to hire them in this job market.
“Some of the women are experiencing menopause. Some are dealing with the recent death of a parent. When you put it all together, it’s a major, cataclysmic life change.”
Men, too, are reeling — given that two-thirds of baby-boom divorces are filed by wives.
At United Methodist Church of the Resurrection, the same facility where the midlife women gathered, just-divorced men with gray on their temples are flocking for their own support sessions and hugs.
They, too, report being betrayed by spouses who found love elsewhere.
“About 20 men participated in the last eight-week session, and they are not younger men,” said the Rev. Steve Langhofer. “We hadn’t seen that kind of turnout for the men’s group in a number of years, and all of a sudden — boom.”
National statistics suggest the over-50 lifestyle is undergoing rapid change — though the divorce data are skewed by all-time low marriage rates (and thus declining divorce rates) among younger Americans.
In 1990, fewer than 10 percent of U.S. divorces involved spouses age 50 or older. Today, more than 1 in 4 divorces involve older adults — including the very aged, who often split legally for financial reasons but continue to live together.
In 2009, the divorce rate hit 12.6 for every 1,000 married people ages 50-64, double the middle-aged divorce rate from 20 years earlier.
About a third of baby boomers today are unmarried. Most who are recently divorced have also experienced an earlier divorce.
More than 2.7 million Americans 50 or older are cohabitating, nearly three times as many as in 2000.
Harder to gauge are the causes and possible effects of the “gray divorce” phenomenon, and whether a divorced boomer is a happier one.
Studies show many women, in particular, eventually feel a sense of self-fulfillment and personal renewal after a midlife divorce. And hasn’t happiness always been the Holy Grail of boomer culture?
In a 2010 survey by the Pew Research Center, baby boomers were much more likely than other Americans to express a belief that the main point of marriage was to seek happiness rather than to rear children.
An earlier Pew study showed 66 percent of boomers would prefer divorce to an unhappy marriage. Only 44 percent of younger Americans agreed — though they’re less apt to tie the knot in the first place.
“We don’t retire just to sit in rocking chairs anymore,” said Anne Holmes, a once-divorced, now happily wed “boomer in chief” for the National Association of Baby Boomer Women. “We set out on new lives
“People in the past stayed married whether they were happy or not, while us boomers have always been accused of asking, ‘What makes me happy?’ Facing another 30 years, maybe, in an unhappy situation with someone, baby boomers (pondering divorce) are saying, ‘It’s now or never.’ ”
But calling it quits — especially in such a punishing economy — doesn’t necessarily lead to happy endings, say demographers and sociologists.
Single Americans in their senior years tend to face more economic hardship than married couples. Unmarried elders are more likely to live in subsidized housing, and “this generation has fewer kids than the earlier generations had to help them along,” if needed, said William H. Frey, a Brookings Institution demographer.
“Baby boomers in general are not likely to have that sure retirement their parents had — a real pension, their savings,” steady Social Security and medical coverage or other “reliable security blankets,” he said.
Even for affluent boomers, these are crummy times to break up.
Michelle Bath, 50, acquired in a 2010 divorce settlement the Leawood home she and her ex-husband designed, a spread that now conjures up memories of what she once thought was the perfect union.
“I’m still in the house, and I can’t wait to get out. I look forward to that liberating feeling,” she said. “But my kids want to stay and if I sold now I’d take a loss.”
After her midlife breakup, Bath, an independent accounting consultant, launched a side business to help divorcees and the soon-to-be-split work out their finances.
The typical boomer couple has a net worth almost 50 times that of adults in their 20s who might be considering divorce. That piles a lot onto the plates of mediators working out divorce settlements.
Beyond alimony, agreements must be reached on IRAs and mutual funds, the kids’ college costs and health insurance for a spouse who had relied on a breadwinner’s coverage.
“You don’t have a health insurance plan, and you’re in your 50s? You’ve got a problem on the open market,” said Larry Swall, a Kansas City lawyer and family mediator.
Caught in middle
What are we forgetting? Oh, yeah, the kids.
They may be older teens or off to college. They might even have their own kids. But they’re still apt to be shaken when the parents go separate ways, said clinical psychologist Joe Nowinski of the University of Connecticut Health Center.
“The idea that it’s much harder for younger children to adapt to a divorce — that doesn’t hold water,” he said. “For teenagers who are forging their identities and their peer groups, or for young adults trying to establish themselves, life is tumultuous enough. A divorce can really rock their boats.”
Older children sometimes see the domestic storm coming before it hits.
A college student from Johnson County recounted to The Star how she discovered — through suspicious emails on the family computer — that her father was having an affair. She confronted him but, uncertain how to proceed, withheld the news from her mother for a couple of awkward years. She began to think Mom was aware and accepting of the tryst.
Mom knew nothing, except that things got tense whenever her daughter visited and Dad was home.
Dad eventually left. And daughter revealed his secret to Mom.
“It was a turbulent thing I had to go through,” the daughter said, suspecting that many older children are the first to learn of an unfaithful parent. “I’m sure it happens all the time these days, the way 16-year-olds spend all their time on the computer.”
Not all divorces late in life are so difficult.
For couples who are retired, especially if one spouse is disabled or ill, divorces may be arranged for economic reasons. If one spouse lacks insurance to cover long-term care, for example, the other can shelter the household assets by getting a divorce and letting Medicaid pay the bills.
Even Social Security benefits might increase, in certain circumstances, if a couple legally splits.
And the Joneses next door? They, too, may be divorced.
They’ve signed the papers. Divvied up the assets. Agreed to help the kids through college.
They just aren’t able to sell the house — or don’t want to, not with housing prices so low. Not with one spouse out of work and willing to go anywhere for a job.
The Gray Divorce Revolution may be serious, but it isn’t stupid.
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