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Why Do Boomers Divorce So Much More Than Everyone Else?

Are boomers only interested in their next sex partner?

One of the most infamous (and sometimes contested) statistics about marriage is actually not about getting married but instead about getting unmarried. For a while, the divorce rate was around 50 percent. Since 1996, though, the rate has been dropping and is now closer to 40 percent than 50 percent.

There is, though, one big exception. Among the boomers (born between 1945 and 1964), the rate has increased by 50 percent in the past two decades.

So what’s going on with those boomers? That’s the question Pepper Schwartz addressed at CNN. The boomers, she noted, came of age during a great economy. Perhaps that gave them a secure base from which to launch their critiques of society, in the form of movements such as civil rights, women’s rights, and gay rights, and to indulge in “sex, drugs and rock ‘n roll.” They have been innovators in many domains, including marriage, where they questioned conventions about duty and loyalty.

Schwartz thinks that boomers are divorcing in record numbers because they are still “making it up as they go along, inventing middle age and…redefining the parameters of personal relationships…”

If you read the essay closely, though, I think you might see a very limited and not very creative take on what the boomers are doing. Boomers, Schwartz says, “regard their 50s and 60s as every bit the opportunity for love and sexual attraction that their 20s and 30s were.” According to this view, I think, boomers are still obsessed with marriage and standard sexual relationships – they are just bringing different standards to the process.

Missing from that perspective is an intriguing demographic nugget – as the divorce rate is decreasing, the remarriage rate seems to be decreasing, too. Maybe substantial numbers of boomers are not looking for their next partner in marriage or even their next long-term sexual partner. Maybe there are plenty of boomers who are not matrimaniacs. Their lives never were solely about marrying. All those social movements and concerns with social justice could not have come about if boomers could not see beyond their individual needs and desires within the confines of the conventional conjugal couple.

Maybe boomers have big, broad views of what kinds of pursuits are important and what kinds of people and relationships matter. Maybe they care about their friends and relatives and mentors and all sorts of people other than just sex partners. Please don’t tell me that they lived through, and powered, one of the most transformative times in the nation’s history only to spend their later years preoccupied with personal opportunities for standard normal couple-based “love and sexual attraction.”

[Note: Thanks to Madeleine Reber for the heads-up about the Schwartz article. Also, elsewhere I have been writing about topics such as: Is widowhood more difficult now than several decades ago? and Why does it seem like everyone is married when there are more than 100 million single people?]