Half of all marriages end in divorce. That statistic is incorrect but amazingly pervasive. It’s one of those numbers that has taken on a life of its own. In fact, most marriages last. According to a 2008 estimate, about four in ten marriages in Canada will break up within 30 years. And contrary to some conventional wisdom, the divorce rate is not rising dramatically.
What is on the rise, however, is the proportion of people who are divorced later in life. According to the Vanier Institute, the median age of people getting divorced rose by about five years between 1991 and 2008. This phenomenon is sometimes called the rise of “grey divorce.”
Our own Environics data has found that the proportion of Canadians aged 65+ who say they are divorced rose from 4% in 1981 to 12% in 2011. About a fifth of late Baby Boomers (born 1955 to 1965) tell us they are already divorced, and an additional 14% are remarried. Boomers are also the generation most likely to say they think retirement will introduce significant stress into their marriages, which suggests that grey divorce is not likely to diminish in the years ahead.
In short, although divorce is not exploding in the way some might assume, it does affect a significant proportion of households, and it will have important implications for many older Canadians’ finances (as well as their children’s finances).
Even in the best-case scenario—where there’s no expensive legal battle and both parties feel they are leaving the marriage with their fair share of money and assets—divorce is costly. It splits pensions, RRSPs and other savings. It typically increases both partners’ cost of living, since previously shared assets, from homes to cars to appliances, must now be owned separately. This requires them to either draw down what savings they have left after a split, or undertake late-in-life mortgages or other loans that must be paid off, at a time they were expecting to be able to start drawing down their savings nest eggs. As the Vanier Institute points out, women tend to experience a disproportionate drop in their standard of living following a divorce.
Divorce often necessitates the selling of the family home—the liquidation of what is generally people’s most important asset. The rise of grey divorce will be felt in real estate markets, as larger family homes are sold and newly single older folks seek out smaller dwellings like condos, townhouses and starter homes (or in this case restarter homes).
It’s not only divorced Boomers themselves who will face the cost of going it alone in later life. Couples are able to help each other get through minor infirmities such as a short-term illness or recovery after surgery, diminishing the need for outside assistance. Even in the course of daily life, little things like having a spouse to nudge you about taking your medication can make a big difference in maintaining independence. Children of divorced Boomers who are living on their own will likely have to face questions about support staff or assisted living sooner than those whose parents can still help each other along.
Baby Boomers have reshaped society at every stage of their lives: first there was the boom itself (babies everywhere!); then their flocking to post-secondary education en masse; and then their social, political and lifestyle agitations during adulthood. Now, this large cohort—more individualistic and less dutiful than their parents were—is heading into retirement. Whereas Elders who rated their marriages as just so-so were likely to “stick it out” (preferring not to break religious vows or experience the disapproval of others), Boomers are more likely to prize their own happiness during their remaining years on earth. And if it costs more—well, that’s never stopped them before.