The impact of divorce on all married couples is uniformly difficult, from the inevitable hemorrhaging of time, emotion, and money in getting to the split, to the realization that you have built a life around a personal and economic union that is coming to an end, to the fear and trepidation caused by the realization that two households must now make do on the same income that long supported one. Now, however, new studies by academics suggest that divorcing in middle age amplifies those difficulties considerably.
Divorcing after the age of 50 presents unique challenges that (as a general matter) are less acute for younger divorcing couples. These includes stressors placed on personal health at an age when health issues occur more frequently, and often present greater risk. Among those health effects are higher blood pressure readings, weight gain (particularly among men), and a more frequent occurrence of depression.
Author Ben Steverman of Bloomberg published an article in July this year detailing that the so-called “gray divorce” after the age of 50 is a “major financial shock.” The Steverman article noted research reported by Susan Brown, a Bowling Green University sociology professor and co-director of the National Center for Family & Marriage Research, which colored the grim reality of middle-aged divorces. While the emotional and physical repercussions are significant, the economic impact of divorce on those divorcing spouses is especially hard-hitting. Among the research-based effects of those divorces according to the staff at the National Center are:
Reduction in accumulated wealth by approximately 50%, based on a longitudinal study of 20,000 Americans born before 1960. Since the approximately equal division of a family’s resources is a standard occurrence in almost all divorces, this finding is not altogether unexpected.
The collapse of income after divorce, particularly for impacted women. Steverman wrote that the National Center addressed “…standard of living – income adjusted for household size – reflecting the fact that a solo adult needs less income than a single parent with two children still living at home. They found that when women divorce after age 50, standard of living plunges 45%. That’s about double the decline found in previous research on younger divorced women.” Men over 50 also experienced a smaller but not insignificant reduction in standard of living on a post-divorce basis (21%).
A continuing post-divorce inability by both women and men to rehabilitate either the accrual of wealth or the ability to earn and increase applicable standards of living. Steverman reports that the National Center found “no appreciable recovery” in wealth or in standard of living, despite tracking survey respondents’ finances for up to a decade after divorce.
Americans over fifty, and particularly those in the late stages of their employment careers, often find it difficult to play catch-up on the financial opportunities that have been structurally compromised by a divorce. Women in specific – many of whom spent their entire married lives as homemakers and child caregivers – encounter the almost inevitable problem of re-entering the workforce without the skills necessary to obtain a supporting wage, to say nothing of a high-paying job.
At the point of retirement age, wives who divorced after age 50 can face extreme challenges, including statistically burgeoning poverty rates. Steverman wrote that “[a]nother 2017 study by Brown and colleagues found U.S. women 63 and older who went through a gray divorce have a poverty rate of 27%, more than any other group at that age, including widows, and nine times the rate of couples who stay married.”
A broader concern for aging couples is the increasing rise in the divorce rate for spouses over the age of 45. For married couples under the age of 44, the divorce rate consistently decreased for each 10-year age group from 1990 to 2017. For married couples over the age of 44, the divorce rate consistently increased for each 10-year age group from 1990 to 2017. Steverman reports that the National Center attributes these trends to “a generational divide [where] Americans in their 20s, 30s and 40s are delaying and, in some cases, skipping marriage. Those who do get hitched are likelier to stay together. Meanwhile, Baby Boomers – who caused the divorce rate to surge starting in the 1970’s – are continuing to divorce at higher rates as they age.” The National Center research suggests that those trends will accelerate and increase the volume of middle-aged divorces as the aging of the U.S. population continues.
The research indicates that the optimal way to recover from almost all the unpleasant incidents of a late-in-life divorce is to remarry or find a new partner. But that is easier said than done – particularly given that only about one in five women remarry or re-partner in the ten years after a divorce, and only 37% of men do the same.