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Divorce Rates Are Exploding Among Older Americans, Co-Habitation Reigns

With so many older couples divorcing, co-habitation becomes the new normal for many Americans.

The portrait of American couples spending their life together after decades of marriage is getting painted over with a new picture. What was once a mark of stability in American life is no more. Divorces among people 50 and older since 1990 have doubled, and it shows no signs of declining, says Susan Brown, co-director of the National Center for Family and Marriage Research at Bowling Green University in Ohio that has studied the issue. By 2030, the number is expected to reach a staggering 800,000 a year.

“We might of in the past said older people don’t get divorced and that would have been more accurate in 1990 when it was still only 8 percent of all people getting divorced were 50 and older, but today it is one in four,” Brown says.

The onset of divorce when many couples were planning their retirement with each other upends that financial stability that many thought they would have from their IRAs, 401(k)s and other assets, including a home, that would now be split in a divorce.

The result of that upheaval? Older couples are turning to co-habitation in greater numbers—nearly tripling since 2000. In the parlance of the day, they’re “shacking up.” The number of people 50 and older living together has risen from 1.2 million in 2000 to 3.3 million in 2013.

So what’s the reason for raising divorce rates for older Americans over the last two decades that’s leading to greater co-habitation?

Brown says there have been a lot of changes that have contributed to the increase. One is that the meaning of marriage has shifted such that people have a more individualized view of what a marriage should be and what makes for a good marriage—if you’re not deriving personal fulfillment and happiness from your marriage, divorce is an acceptable solution, she says.

“I think this is now a viewpoint that has permeated across the generations,” Brown says.

Another factor Brown says should be considered is that women today are more economically independent, and they can afford to get divorced. Women are slightly more likely to file for divorce than men by the rate of 60-40, she says.

“It’s not to say that marriages today are any worse quality then they were in the past, rather people have alternatives,” Brown says. “Women aren’t economically dependent on their spouses a generation or two ago and that makes a difference.”

In the short run, the trend will continue, as baby boomers get older, Brown says. What happens 20 years from now isn’t clear. But at least it will increase in the next five to ten years, she says.

The study didn’t directly address why people are divorcing, but Brown says that for a lot of couples the anecdotal evidence centers on growing apart.

“The person who was good for you that you married at age 25, maybe you don’t have as much in common with them now that you’re 60,” Brown says. “You both retired, and the kids are gone, and you’re confronted with each other 24/7 and so you have to really think if this is the person you want to be with. You had distractions over your adult life of raising kids and earning a living. Now, those activities are largely over and now there’s more focus on the couple. We see a lot of people will report that they’ve grown apart and want different things out of life.”

Brown says that applies to both men and women. There’s no evidence of a gender difference at this point, she says.

Brown says it’s plausible for a fraction of men, the reason may be a mid-life crisis and seeking out a younger woman.

“For some people they want to launch their kids and they launched their kids and they want to deal with their own marriage issues and move on to a new chapter in their lives,” Brown says. “I think couples when they retire at 65 or so realize they could live another 15 to 20 years and that’s a long time to spend with someone you’re not so fond of anymore.”

The financial impact on these couples is a “huge issue” in which there hasn’t been a lot of research complete yet, Brown says.

“For those less economically advantaged, a grey divorce will have pretty devastating consequences because there’s not enough time to make up their losses,” Brown says. “If you get divorced at 30, you have another 30 years in the labor market. When you get divorced at 60, your days are numbered.”

Traditionally, couples relied on the spouse to take care of them when their health faltered. Now that they’re living alone, who’s going to care for them? Children may be too far away to do that or not able to provide that level of care, she says.

That fits into the most interesting question that the researchers haven’t finished work on yet—what are the consequences and what does it mean to experience a grey divorce? Brown says.

What’s apparent in the research so far is that in greater numbers many divorced older Americans are turning to co-habitation rather than remarrying, Brown says. They do it for companionship and economics, she says. They want to protect their financial autonomy and hand down their assets to their children rather than co-mingle their assets with their live-in partner.

“They’re more likely to live together because it offers many of the benefits of marriage without the legal entanglements,” Brown says. “These are actually quite stable unions. We followed these couples over time to see if they broke up or got married. Very few got married or broke up. They stayed together for the most part. It shows co-habitation has really become cemented as a family form. It’s something more and more people are doing regardless of age.”

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