America is not only a mix of ethnicities, races, and religions, it’s also a composite of multiple generations, each of which contributes its own unique spin on everything from pop culture to family traditions. So how do different generations compare in their attitudes toward marriage and divorce?
In general, the math of divorce has changed over time. The divorce rate peaked in the late 1970s and early 1980s and has declined steadily ever since. But the percentage of new marriages that will fail is still over 50 percent (52.7 percent, according to a 2016 data analysis at the University of Maryland). And, as a recent relationship study from Avvo reveals, nearly one in five married Americans are currently considering divorce.
We recently posted a summary of the divorce rates among different generations. Let’s take a deeper look at the different marriage and divorce tendencies across three living generations of American adults:
Baby boomers in the lead
Once known as the “me generation,” baby boomers were born between 1946 and 1964. And it’s among this group—now ages 53 to 71—that the divorce rate is highest. While the rest of the nation has seen a decline in the divorce rate over that last two decades, the divorce rate has doubled for 55- to 64-year olds and tripled for the over-65 group.
In fact, the phenomenon has given birth to the phrase “gray divorce,” the end of a marriage between spouses who are age 50 and up.
Tom, 61, and Anna, 53, wed in 1986, and built an all-American life together. They were both investment bankers and together raised a son who has his own dreams of working on Wall Street. The first thing they did when their son finished college? They filed for divorce.
“For us, there was no event or infidelity that triggered it,” explains Tom, who says that their split is entirely amicable. “We grew apart 10 years ago but stayed together for our son’s benefit. Now that he’s on his own, we can cut our marital ties and begin to enjoy life—apart.”
Tom and Anna are fairly representative of their generation. Many long-time couples postpone divorce until a child is grown. Others simply find their marriage is not strong enough to survive the empty nest syndrome—it’s not until the kids are gone that Mom and Dad realize they no longer have anything in common.
“We want different things now,” Tom says. “She wants to travel around the world, and I want to relax at our vacation cabin. Marriage shouldn’t get in the way of our being able to enjoy life in our own way.”
Marital and family law attorney Meghan Freed of Freed Marcroft LLC says that her firm’s business generally follows national trends like this. “Among the baby boomers I’ve discussed this with, there is a definite sense that what works in one season of your life doesn’t necessarily work in another,” she says.
Freed explains that boomers have already reinvented “middle age” and are now redefining what the next stage of life should look like. “They are youthful and vibrant, and they are willing to make life changes if their marriage does not live up to their expectations.”
Generations come and go, of course, and baby boomers are on the decline. Until recently, they had always outsized their peers, but millennials (those born between 1981 and 2000) took the lead in 2016. The boomer population peaked at 78.8 million in 1999, dipped to 74.9 million in 2015 and, by middle of the century, will drop to 16.6 million.
Generation Xers are staying married (for now)
Generation X (those born 1965-1980) is sandwiched between boomers and millennials. It’s smaller than other generations because it covers a shorter time span and because people were having fewer kids at the time.
Currently, the oldest gen-Xers are just over 50 and the youngest are 37. The Census Bureau projects that the generation’s population will peak at 65.8 million in 2018. And those in this group who did get married have stayed together, for the most part.
About 70 percent of marriages that began in the 1990s reached their 15th anniversary. That’s a significant increase over the 65 percent that made it that far in the 1970s and 1980s. And the statistics continue to improve with time: Those who wed in the 2000s are (so far) divorcing at even lower rates.
Too soon to tell what millennials will do
Millennials, those currently ages 17 to 36, have yet to put their personal stamp on marriage and divorce rates. So far, only 26 percent of them are married. By contrast, 36 percent of gen-Xers and 48 percent of baby boomers were married by the age of current millennials.
One reason for the low marriage rate might involve the typical generational pushback of children rejecting their parents’ philosophies. “The baby boomers believed that marriage, a two-car garage, and divorce would bring them happiness, but it didn’t work out that way,” says attorney Peter Walzer, founder of Walzer Melcher LLC. “When their children, the millennials, saw the misery their parents endured, they decided they would never get married. Millennials do not want to repeat the mistakes of their parents, so they are unwilling to tie the knot. Unfortunately, they will find out that relationship and money problems persist – marriage or no marriage.”
CBS Money Watch predicts that the millennial marriage rate will remain low, thanks in part to changing gender roles. And education is now playing a part as well—women with post-graduate degrees are now more likely than those with bachelor degrees or those without a college degree to get married. Researchers theorize that these women, often progressive politically, see marriage as something that furthers (rather than stifles) the feminist cause. Husbands will be more involved at home, and workplaces will be expected to offer more support for fathers.
This is in direct opposition to the ideology embraced by pre-baby boomer generations, when men—often the breadwinners—held college degrees and their less-educated wives were homemakers.
But while the paradigm has shifted, millennial marrying types may find obstacles in their quest to settle down with an equal. Women looking for a spouse who is just as educated will encounter a basic supply-and-demand challenge: Women outnumber men in college enrollment, and there are only 85 college-educated men for every 100 college-educated women.
Further contributing to the low rate of marriage among millennials are their relationship alternatives. It’s no longer taboo to live together without a marriage license, nor is it frowned upon to have a child with someone to whom you’re not married. Couples can share a romantic life and procreate without the obligation to make it legal.
And millennials are unapologetic about sharing the love, too. Polyamory, an increasing number of millennials say, enables human beings to return to what’s natural—responding to their innate sex drive—without the interference of trumped-up concepts like marriage.
Despite it all, however, most young Americans do remain hopeful about one-on-one romance. Nearly two-thirds of people under the age of 30 who’ve never been married say they would like to tie the knot someday, according to The Pew Research Center. The reasons they have not yet done so—being financially unprepared still without that perfect soulmate—are not unlike those obstacles that plagued the baby boomers and gen-Xers who came before them.
Only time will tell what the millennial marriage legacy will be.