11/02/2012 01:06 pm ET Updated Jan 02, 2013

Are Baby Boomers Still Pushing Up the Divorce Rate?

The Baby Boom generation has had a large effect on demographic trends over the past 50 years. In young adulthood, they pushed up the divorce rate to unprecedented numbers, which raised many questions about the impact of divorce on their children. Now that this generation is mostly over 50 years of age, it is interesting to look at what has been happening with regards to their divorce rate in middle age and consider new questions about the impact of divorce on their well-being and their relationships with their children.

First, a look at the trends in the divorce rate among this group. Susan Brown and I-Fen Lin recently completed a paper they titled, The Gray Divorce Revolution, in which they report that the divorce rate of American couples over 50 has been rapidly rising over the past 20 years.

Using data from the Census Bureau, Brown and Lin examine the divorce rate from 1990 to 2010 among couples who are 50 years of age and older. They found that the divorce rate has doubled over this 20 year period. In 1990, the divorce rate for people 50 and older was about 4.9 divorces per 1,000 married persons and in 2010, the rate was 10 divorces per 1,000 married persons. During this same period of time, the overall divorce rate for the United States remained flat or slightly declined from about 19 divorces per 1,000 persons in 1990 to 18 in 2010. Note that the number of people over 50 years of age has increased during that time as well; 600,000 persons over age 50 got divorced in 2010 compared to about 200,000 in 1990.

Brown and Lin also tell us more about these divorcing Americans. The divorce rate varies by racial/ethnic characteristics, income, employment, education, length of marriage and number of marriages. As we have seen in other marriage and divorce trends, African Americans experience the most fragile marriages. This finding remains true for those over 50 as well. For African Americans over 50, the divorce rate is twice that of White and Hispanic couples. Individuals with a college education had the lowest divorce rate compared to those with less than a college education. Employment status also yielded rate differences; retired persons had the lowest divorce rate, followed by employed persons. Unemployed persons over 50 had the highest rate of divorce. Interestingly, the divorce rate by income groups did not differ very much.

Marital history, including the duration of the marriage, also factors into the likelihood of divorce. Among older Americans, the divorce rate for those who have been married for 40 years is about 3.2 divorces per 1,000 married persons. When you compare this group to those who have been married less than 10 years, the differences are dramatic; there were almost 29 divorces per 1,000 married persons. Many of the people in this group with marriages under 10 years remarried. In general, remarriages are at greater risk of divorce; for middle-age persons, the increased risk of divorce is 2.5 times that of the rate for first marriages. For persons over 65 years of age who are remarried, the divorce risk is four times the rate for first marriages.

So what does this mean? We know relatively little about divorce in middle age, but what we do know is worrisome. On average, the physical and mental health of older people living alone is worse than for married individuals. This is especially true for men. There is also evidence that divorce in middle adulthood strains relations between parents and their children. Adult children are often pulled into their parent's disputes, much like younger children are caught in the middle of their parents' splits. Although many of these strains can be worked out over time, some relationships are never healed. Fathers are at the greatest risk of not having a close, continuing relationship with their children. From a human services and public policy perspective, there is much work that needs to be done to address the issues presented by a society with a growing number of older, single divorced persons who may have fragile ties to other family members.