Boomers and the Divorce Rate

Mister and Mrs. Boomer celebrated an anniversary recently. That in and of itself is not news, but what has been in the news lately is the divorce rate among Baby Boomers. Most of Mister B’s boomer friends have been married for 30 to 40 years, but evidently this is now an exception rather than the rule. The national divorce rate has hovered around 50 percent for the past couple of decades, but government records are saying the divorce rates are dropping for every age group except those in the 50-plus demographic: Baby Boomers. According to AARP, in the 1950s less than 3 percent of men and women over 50 were divorced; now that percent is 17.5 and rising.

The Internet is filled with people trying to figure out why this is so, but there are a few things that come up as possible reasons including attitudes on recreational sex, the age at which many boomers married, changing gender roles and job opportunities for women.

We were the generation that wanted to do everything different than our parents. The mantra of “free love” may not have been as prevalent as even today by comparison, but we broke with the traditions of our parents’ generation. As the sixties became the seventies, recreational sex was much more acceptable to a changing society. Despite the loosening of sexual mores, boomers still tended to marry around the same age as the previous generation. Mister Boomer recalls that when all of his cousins turned 21 — men and women — it seemed automatic that they would be married within a year. A good portion of Baby Boomers were married with children by age 25, and certainly by 30.

Since we were the generation that was out to redefine everything, gender roles were changing. A woman was no longer relegated to the kitchen and at home to raise the children. Dads slowly started taking a more active role in domestic chores and child rearing, especially when the Women’s Liberation Movement began to open doors for employment.

So, what happened? Why would a married lifestyle that we boomers helped to form become less desirable, especially as we aged? Some speculate that our earlier experimental life — with drugs, sex and career — made us prone to divorce through wanderlust. Many boomers saw themselves in a situation that resembled the marriages their parents had, but being different, decided they didn’t have to stay together “for the sake of the children.”

Others point to the fact that since we are living longer, our expectations may have changed. “Hope I die before get old” is not on the table for a good many of us now, though we hold steadfast to that phrase, “60 is the new 50.” What the future holds is a mystery, but for a generation that reached for utopian ideals, buffet dinner with your spouse at 4 pm and pudding cups at 8 are unthinkable.

Others still point to the fact that we are the generation who continues to think differently, especially about aging. We’re more fit than our predecessors at our age, and consequently, more in tune with body image. Aging boomers are more apt to spend time sculpting and primping their bodies than any generation that came before. That narcissistic tendency developed in boomers decades ago has resulted in a throwback to the desire to “love the one you’re with.”  While it sounded like an ideal situation 40 years ago, it’s a poison pill to long-term relationships.

Whatever the reason, more boomers are facing divorce after age 50. That sounds sad to Mister B, but at the same time, kind of liberating. Mister B thinks it may be that boomers are taking the songs of their era to heart. One in particular comes to mind:

But if you must go, I won’t tell you no
Just so we can say that we tried
Tell me you’ll love me for a million years
Then if it don’t work out, and if it don’t work out
Then you can tell me goodbye*

Today marriage is being reshaped again as kids are getting married at a later age, cohabitating and calling it quits if it doesn’t work, and avenues to same-gender partners that were previously blocked are opening. It sounds like we boomers set the pace for what has happened after all. Since the divorce rate for younger people is less, we taught them well. As for Mister Boomer, he is quite content to be married to a wonderful spouse, secure in the knowledge that she will still be sending him a Valentine, birthday greetings and a bottle of wine — when he’s 64.

Have you or your boomer friends divorced after 50, boomers?

*Then You Can Tell Me Goodbye, written by John D.  Loudermilk and recorded by The Casinos in 1967 and many others, among them Frankie Vallie and the Four Seasons, Glen Campbell, Andy Williams and on and on.

Boomers Were Going to the Chapel

Weddings occur every month of the year, but a good portion of them are scheduled for the summer months. Two co-workers of Mister Boomer’s, both over the age of 30, are getting married this month, so it got him thinking about how marriages have changed in the sixty-plus years since the first Baby Boomers were born.

For one thing, the attitudes toward marriage were expressed in songs of the era. Take for example, Chapel of Love, Wouldn’t It Be Nice and Wedding Bell Blues.

Co-written by Phil Specter (along with Jeff Barry and Ellie Greenwich), Chapel of Love was first recorded by Darlene Love in 1963, then by The Ronettes before it became a huge hit for The Dixie Cups in 1964. The lyrics are delivered from an ecstatic bride’s point of view. She has so romanticized the institution of marriage that she proclaims on her wedding day that bells will ring, the sun will shine … and once she and her beloved are wed, they’ll never be lonely any more. This speaks to the late 1950s and early ’60s cultural norm that marriage was the natural order of things as one exited their teenage years.

Wouldn’t It Be Nice, released by the Beach Boys in 1966, echoes the enthusiasm of Chapel of Love for a marital union, but it’s sung from the vantage point of a younger boy who fantasizes what it would be like to be older and married to his girlfriend. We could be married, and then we’d be happy, he sings, Oh, wouldn’t it be nice.

While this idealized vision of marriage was represented in song, however, cultural norms began to shift. Within the first decade when early Baby Boomers reached what was the traditional age of marriage — the 1960s into the 1970s — the average age for tying the knot was changing. In 1960, the average age for women was just over the age of 20, for men, just shy of 23. By 1970, it was inching upward, so by the time the latest Baby Boomers reached marriage age in the mid-70s into the mid-80s, the average age for both men and women had increased by a full year. Compare the first marriage ages of Baby Boomers to those of today — nearly 27 for women and 29 going on 30 for men — and the upward trend continues exponentially.

There are many reasons postulated for the slow but steady rise in age before marrying in the 1960s. Some speculate it was the introduction of the Pill in 1960, which coincided with the lessening of social mores concerning pre-marital sex that accounted for the increasing age. Others point to the Vietnam War as an interruption in the lives of tens of thousands of young men at the age when they might have entertained getting married, while still others suggest the rise of Feminism saw an increase in the number of women attending college, but also gave women the permission they sought to choose not only whom they would marry, but when. It could very well be these factors melded into a perfect storm on the effects of marriage age.

Wedding Bell Blues was written and recorded by Laura Nyro in 1966, but it is the version released by The 5th Dimension in 1969 that most boomers associate with the song. Like the earlier songs, marriage is a desirable state for the singer, but in this number, the female is speaking to a specific male who may be dragging his feet. She lays out her case to Bill, and emphatically asks, am I ever gonna see my wedding day? She further prods, c’mon and marry me, Bill, because she has the wedding bell blues.

The song was seen at the time as an interpretation of the relationship between Marilyn McCoo and Billy Davis, both members of The 5th Dimension, though it was not written for them. Ms. McCoo and Mr. Davis had been engaged when the song was released, but no wedding date had yet been set. They did marry in 1969, and are married still.

The song took on a broader appeal for boomer record buyers, and it hit number one in the U.S. in November of 1969. Here, the woman was no longer wishing and hoping, like songs from the beginning of the decade, but making it clear not only what she wanted, but what he should do.

Perhaps what we experience now in people getting married — at an older age, same sex marriages, delaying children, living together before marriage, etc. — is the direct result of the Baby Boomers’ revolution. What people now have that many Baby Boomers did not, especially early Baby Boomers born in the late 1940s and early ’50s, is options. This complete freedom of choice is what we wanted. Today’s generation has it.

Did you get married, boomers? How old were you the first time you married?