The Gray Divorce Penalty

Divorce in mid-life produces a “gray divorce penalty.” Women and men experience very different gray divorce penalties: women face an economic gray divorce penalty, while men face a social gray divorce penalty.

Gray Divorce Penalty

During the years 1990–2010, the divorce rate for all those age 15 and higher dropped slightly from 19 to 17.9 divorces per 1,000 married persons. But the divorce rate for adults aged 50 and over moved in the opposite direction, doubling from 4.87 to 10.05. Put in other terms, this means that approximately one in four divorces in the United States is now a “gray divorce.”

The Gray Divorce Penalty and Gender

The key point here is that women and men experience very different gray divorce penalties. Women face an economic gray divorce penalty. As a result of their childbearing responsibilities and labor force participation patterns, as well as the structure of social policies in the United States, women are much more likely than men to struggle with financial problems if they divorce at or after the age of 50.

But men do not emerge unscathed. In particular, men face a social gray divorce penalty. Men start out with weaker social networks before their divorces, and they suffer further friendship and adult family member relationship losses if they experience a marital breakup at or after the age of 50. They also face hardships because their adult children are less likely to offer them support in old age.

These gray divorce penalties are extremely difficult for the women and men who live through them.

From the outside looking in, it is not easy to see a woman after a gray divorce worry about her long-term finances and ability – or inability – to retire. It is also disturbing to witness a man after a gray divorce deal with the emotional roller-coaster of his life without a solid circle of friends, adult family members, or adult children offering support. But there are also larger, macro-level problems to consider as well. The impact of gray divorce extends well beyond the boundaries of the immediately affected couples into society at large.

For women, if they or their ex-husbands have had a work history, they will receive social security benefits, but this income might well not be enough to sustain them. Confronting the stark realities of deprivation or even poverty, these women might need to turn to the government for other types of income, food, or shelter needs. They also might require medical assistance in the form of Medicare or Medicaid. Costs for these programs are exploding at what many would argue is an unsustainable rate. The public economic expenses of gray divorce are thus clear. Taxpayers will be pressed to do more and more in response to women’s economic vulnerability in the event of a gray divorce.

Men who lose social supports after a gray divorce can also impose significant costs on society. As men age, they may need a variety of services from friends, adult family members, and their adult children. This could involve a whole range of caregiving tasks, from help with basic chores such as paying bills to more complex duties, such as assistance with the activities of daily living. When these responsibilities are provided for by family members, they do not affect the public purse.

However, if the links between older, divorcing men and their social networks weaken, they might find themselves nearly or even completely alone. They then might have to turn to publicly funded institutions for care, such as emergency rooms. In addition, if they require more intensive levels of long-term care, they might need to apply for Medicaid to cover the costs of nursing home stays if they deplete their own personal resources. In all of these cases, then, we can see that private, gray divorce penalties create public, gray divorce problems.

But poverty and overall economic strain among older women, and particularly those who are divorcing, can be prevented.

Smart public policies in the areas of retirement income funding and health care reform can go far in meeting these needs. Similarly, socialization practices and cultural expectations around how men interact with their friends, family members, and adult children can change to strengthen these relationships. Support groups funded by a variety of sources can set men back on the course of personal growth and recovery. None of these goals is easy to achieve, but none is impossible either.

Gray Divorce: What We Lose and Gain from Mid-Life Splits

This article has been excerpted, adapted, and condensed from Gray Divorce: What We Lose and Gain from Mid-Life Splits (University of California Press, 2018) by Jocelyn Elise Crowley. Dr. Crowley is a Professor of Public Policy at Rutgers, The State University of New Jersey.

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