Skip to main content

Why are baby boomers so divorce-prone?

By Pepper Schwartz
updated 10:59 AM EST, Mon December 9, 2013
A billboard advertises a Chicago law firm. Pepper Schwartz says the baby boomer divorce rate has soared.
A billboard advertises a Chicago law firm. Pepper Schwartz says the baby boomer divorce rate has soared.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Pepper Schwartz: Baby boomers' divorce rate doubled while U.S. divorce rate is down
  • She says boomers redid rules on marriage and want fulfillment as they age, not tradition
  • Schwartz: Young people face tough economy and are marrying later
  • They may not divorce like boomers as they grower older, she says

Editor's note: Pepper Schwartz is professor of sociology at the University of Washington and the author or co-author of 19 books, the latest of which is "The Normal Bar." She is the love and relationship ambassador for the AARP and writes the Naked Truth column for AARP.org. She is a senior fellow at the Council on Contemporary Families, a nonprofit organization that gathers research on American families, and chair of the advisory board for the Ph.D. program in sexual studies at the California Institute for Integral Research.

(CNN) -- A recent article in The New York Times noted that the nation's divorce rate -- which plateaued for years at around 50% -- has significantly dropped -- to just above 40%. As almost an aside, the writer mentioned that only one group, the 50-plusers, have seen their rate of divorce surge 50% in the past 20 years.

Oops -- to this boomer, that is "burying the lead." Why would only the boomers have a significant growth in marital dissolution -- one in four divorces after age 50 -- while other ages do not?

After all, it's counterintuitive: Traditionally marriages are most vulnerable to divorce in the first seven to 10 years.

Pepper Schwartz
Pepper Schwartz

Should we see this as a harbinger of doom for 30-year-olds getting married today? We might surmise from these data that the only reason the 20- and 30-somethings' divorce rate is lower is that they just haven't lived as long. And, to be sure, some demographers do believe that eventually we can expect the marriages of Generation Xers and millennials to meet the same fate as all of those divorcing boomers.

However, I would like to float this idea: It won't necessarily happen that way. Boomers' unique social history may make them more divorce-prone than other groups.

Why? Baby boomers, those 79 million born roughly between 1945 and 1964, are a specific cohort because of the conditions and events that they both experienced and, sometimes, created.

Boomers came of age as relatively pampered children of a great postwar economy. With their adolescent disrespect for the past and their theme of "sex, drugs and rock 'n' roll," they pushed against the restrictive conventions of social life their parents more or less had accepted.

Want a temporary marriage license?
Life after divorce for baby boomers

They cut a swath through history partly because of their bulk -- 26% of the U.S. population -- and partly because of their critical approach to the status quo. As young adults, large numbers of them were part of the civil rights, anti-war, gay rights and women's movements. Books and magazine articles in their time attacked (and counterattacked) traditional gender roles -- and the institution of marriage and its traditions.

Boomer women experienced more recreational sex and more sex partners than women in previous generations. New job opportunities and careers helped create the changes in household formation (such as who was or wasn't home during the day, who did less or more housework, and who wanted more or less sex) that disrupted traditional marriage.

As a result, the boomers experienced decades of relationship innovation, creating cultural confusion about whether marriage was necessary, and what made an excellent -- or even adequate -- marriage.

As boomer men and women wavered between choosing self-fulfillment over older traditions of duty, loyalty and lifetime marriage at any cost, the institution of marriage became, over time, more of a voluntary association than a predictably permanent one. Sociologist and demographer Andrew Cherlin has written that between the 1960s and '70s the divorce rate skyrocketed, correlating exactly with the first divorces at the leading edge of the boomer generation. And while the rate leveled out in the 1980s, a large number of people had already defected toward new opportunities for emotional and sexual self-fulfillment.

In many ways, divorce rates are the boomers' legacy. But why does this group continue to make marital changes even in middle and late middle age? Because they are still making it up as they go along, inventing middle age pretty much the same way they made up adolescence and marriage, redefining the parameters of personal relationships and reinventing what different stages of the life cycle could look like.

They are fighting fiercely to remain youthful, to stay employed and/or passionately engaged with life, sexually vibrant (particularly with the help of new medical interventions) and regard their 50s and 60s as every bit the opportunity for love and sexual attraction that their 20s and 30s were. At age 55 or 65, they look at spending 20 or 30 more years with the same person -- and unlike their parents, whose sense of duty was stronger and opportunities to repair weaker, they are ready to walk if things aren't up to their hopes, dreams or delusions about marriage.

So why don't I think this same cycle will happen for our 30-somethings?

• They are more sober about marriage than boomers were at the same ages. They've seen what high divorce rates felt like when their parents split up -- and many of them desperately want to avoid that kind of emotional carnage for their children or for themselves.

Indeed a Pew Research study on social and demographic trends found that "when it comes to divorce, the baby boomers are less conservative than younger generations: 66% say divorce is preferable to staying in an unhappy marriage, compared with 54% of younger adults who say so."

• They are getting married later: The average age for college-educated men and women is in their late 20s. They are more mature, already gaining or losing traction in their chosen work or career, and potential partners can better gauge them as a marriage prospect. Finally, they have been out of school longer, most of them have lived with someone one or more times, and they know more about the world and relationships.

• They have experienced a treacherous economy. Their parents grew up in a lush financial period, but they did not. Young couples are more like their grandparents or great grandparents: aware of the need to pull together for economic security. While not all boomers prospered during the hot economy that attended most of their adult years, they didn't start out being careful about the economic consequences of divorce in the way that their children -- and their own parents -- had to do.

Of course there is no telling if the divorce rate will continue to decline into the future. Sadly, I would not predict that it will. We expect too much from marriage; we have much too high expectations for what a partner should be throughout a long life cycle -- and we live a long time. It's hard to keep a marriage strong, passionate and relevant over so many decades.

But there is that 40% divorce rate. Maybe not exactly something to crow about, but better odds of having a marriage worth staying in is all to the good for the couple, our society and certainly the next generation.

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion.

Join us on Facebook/CNNOpinion.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Pepper Schwartz.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
updated 2:12 PM EDT, Fri August 1, 2014
By now it should be painfully obvious that this latest round of the Israeli-Palestinian crisis in Gaza is fundamentally different than its predecessors.
updated 5:24 PM EDT, Fri August 1, 2014
Sally Kohn says like the Occupy Wall Street protesters, Market Basket workers are asking for shared prosperity.
updated 7:31 PM EDT, Thu July 31, 2014
President Obama will convene an Africa summit Monday at the White House, and Laurie Garrett asks why the largest Ebola epidemic ever recorded is not on the agenda.
updated 2:03 PM EDT, Fri August 1, 2014
Seventy years ago, Anne Frank made her final entry in her diary -- a work, says Francine Prose, that provides a crucial link to history for young people.
updated 7:50 PM EDT, Thu July 31, 2014
Van Jones says "student" debt should be called "education debt" because entire families are paying the cost.
updated 3:41 PM EDT, Wed July 30, 2014
Stuart Gitlow says pot is addictive and those who smoke it can experience long-term psychiatric disease.
updated 7:00 PM EDT, Thu July 31, 2014
Marc Randazza: ESPN commentator fell victim to "PC" police for suggesting something outside accepted narrative.
updated 2:45 PM EDT, Thu July 31, 2014
Mark O'Mara says working parents often end up being arrested after leaving kids alone.
updated 4:31 PM EDT, Wed July 30, 2014
Shanin Specter says we need to strengthen laws that punish auto companies for selling defective cars.
updated 12:45 PM EDT, Wed July 30, 2014
Gabby Giffords and Katie Ray-Jones say "Between 2001 and 2012, more women were shot to death by an intimate partner in our country than the total number of American troops killed in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars combined."
updated 7:58 AM EDT, Wed July 30, 2014
Vijay Das says Medicare is a success story that could provide health care for everybody, not just seniors
updated 1:43 PM EDT, Wed July 30, 2014
S.E. Cupp says the entrepreneur and Dallas Mavericks owner thinks for himself and refuses to be confined to an ideological box.
updated 9:11 AM EDT, Wed July 30, 2014
A Christian group's anger over the trailer for "Black Jesus," an upcoming TV show, seems out of place, Jay Parini says
updated 4:28 PM EDT, Wed July 30, 2014
LZ Granderson says the cyber-standing ovation given to Robyn Lawley, an Australian plus-size model who posted unretouched photos, shows how crazy Americans' notions of beauty have become
updated 3:39 PM EDT, Wed July 30, 2014
Carol Dweck and Rachel Simmons: Girls tend to have a "fixed mindset" but they should have a "growth mindset."
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT