Photographer: Martin Gerten/picture-alliance/dpa via AP Photo

Boomers Are Making Sure the Divorces Keep Coming

The much-reported decline in failed marriages may be misleading. Blame your parents.

Millennials, enjoy your nuptials as the summer wedding season hits its stride. Back home, your folks may be hiring divorce lawyers.

The statistic that half of all marriages fail, long whispered by wedding guests and worried over by reluctant brides and grooms, has garnered some new support. If current behavior continues, 52.7 percent of marriages will end in tears, University of Maryland sociology professor Philip Cohen concludes, based on recent survey data.  

That estimate might surprise some, especially if you look at recent trends. The media have regularly sought to debunk the notion of a 50-percent divorce rate, and the new conventional wisdom has been that Americans get divorced less often than in the past. After all, the official number of divorces according to the U.S. government has dropped, both since its peak in the 1980s and more recently.

It's true that the average marriage is lasting longer and that young people especially are divorcing less. At the same time, people are also far more cautious about tying the knot in the first place, pushing the average age of first-time spouses ever higher, and those who do get divorced are remarrying less often. "Marriage is so much more selective today," says Bowling Green State University sociologist Susan Brown. From the 1940s until the 1970s, the typical women was barely 20 on her wedding day. Now she's over 27. 

So if modern brides and grooms are pickier, and thus getting married later in life, and if overall divorce rates are down, why do Cohen and other sociologists conclude that half of all marriages end in divorce?

Blame the baby boomers. They started divorcing at record rates in the 1970s and never stopped. While divorce fell somewhat among younger Americans over the past 25 years, it has soared among older adults. From 1990 to 2012, the divorce rate for 55 to 64-year-olds more than doubled, according to the Bowling Green's National Center for Family & Marriage Research. The rate for people 65 and older tripled. 

All this goes a long way toward explaining how, overall, marriage in America remains a 50/50 proposition. Boomers had a very different attitude toward marriage than their parents when they were young, and the numbers show they still do now even as they retire. Add to that how during their lifetimes state laws governing divorce became less onerous and women became firmly ensconced in the workplace, and you've got a recipe for independence. “I don’t think boomers are any less happy in their marriages,” says Brown, co-director of the center. “As people live longer, there’s more motivation to get divorced, because there's a lot of life left to be lived.”

Will millennials be better at keeping their vows? Maybe, but just because you're more selective doesn't mean you won't eventually get divorced. And it will take a while to discover the answer: First marriages that fail last a median of 12 years.

"We have no way of knowing what will happen to today's marriages tomorrow," says Cohen. The only thing sociologists can do is look at current behavior, as he does (based on the U.S. Census Bureau's American Community Survey) and extrapolate it into the future. And right now, sociologists can only conclude that many millennials and Generation Xers are headed down the same path as baby boomers—toward midlife divorce.

And even if divorce rates decline in the future, it doesn't mean Americans' relationships and families are more stable. While fewer people marry, they're still coupling up and living together. And these marriage-less couplings are far less likely to last than marriages are.

If you're currently planning a wedding and worried about your chances, don't panic, as there may good news if you dive deeper into the data. Divorce rates for the college educated are 40 percent lower than for people with only some college. Also, first marriages are more likely to last than the second, third, or fourth go-around. 

A wedding isn't just a roll of the dice, in other words. It matters who you marry.

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