Divorce: It's way bigger than we thought

In their paper, Kennedy and Ruggles rely on an entirely different source of information: the American Community Survey, an ongoing sampling of population in every state. Here is what they find: far from going down about 20% since 1980 as researchers had previously concluded, the overall divorce rate has declined only 2.2%. Worse, when you control for the change in the age of the population between 1980 and today—the population of married men and women is considerably older now—the divorce rate has actually risen 40%. By these measures, after a brief pause in the recessionary year of 2009, the divorce rate peaked in 2011. “By 2010,” they write, “almost half of ever married Americans had divorced or separated by the time they reached their late 50’s.”

If you’re looking for something or someone to blame for this dismaying state of affairs, the Boomers, those born between 1945 and 1954, are your best bet. They joined the divorce revolution early on and have stayed true to it ever since. In the 1970s, Boomers, who were then in their twenties, and middle-aged couples were more or less equally likely to divorce. By 1990, that was no longer the case; couples in their twenties and early thirties were looking more stable, while Boomers, now in their forties, continued to divorce “at unprecedented rates.” Since 1990, the biggest rise in divorce has been among women over 45; there was a particularly “massive increase” in divorce among women in their fifties. (For methodological reasons, the authors track women only.)

Meanwhile, younger married couples, including those in their teens and early twenties, who used to be at high risk of breaking up, are actually enjoying more stable marriages than their older peers did at their age. The authors find that 18% of the most recent marriage cohort separated within five years of marrying; that’s compared to 21-22% of first marriages formed by the previous two cohorts.