“The Gray Divorce Penalty: Why Divorcing Over Age 50 Shortchanges Women”

 By Jocelyn Elise Crowley

The “gray divorce” rate, or the marital dissolution rate among Americans age 50 and older, has recently skyrocketed.  Now, 1 out of every 4 divorces is “gray.”  While liberating for many mid-life women as a chance to start over, such new beginnings also come with a substantial financial price tag that should cause us all to worry.

Several years ago, researchers Susan L. Brown and I-Fen Lin at Bowling Green State University were the first to document the rising gray divorce rate.  One direct cause has been the aging of the Baby Boomer generation.  The Census Bureau reports that while in 2010, there were over 99 million Americans age 50 and older, by 2050, there will be over 161 million.

Rising life expectancy has also driven this trend.  Men now live to 76.1 years and women to 81.1 years, an increase over time which has exposed both sexes to a greater chance of becoming divorced.

The problem for women facing a gray divorce is that it hits them extremely hard in the pocketbook.  During their prime earning years of their 20s and 30s, many women take time off from the workforce to raise their children.  When they return to work, they immediately find themselves earning less than the men who remained steadily employed in the same jobs.

Wage discrimination and occupational segregation into low paying “pink collar” jobs also depress women’s earnings.  All of these factors mean that women deposit fewer dollars into their savings accounts, put less money into their retirement plans, and make smaller contributions into the Social Security system.

The cumulative effects of these disadvantages are backed up by the stories of the 40 women I interviewed about their own gray divorces in 2014 and 2015 in my recently published book, Gray Divorce: What We Lose and Gain From Mid-life Splits (2018; Oakland: The University of California Press).  The 40 men I also spoke to—who were unrelated to the women—had very few concerns about their own financial health after their gray divorces.  The women, in contrast, were facing much more difficult circumstances.

Some of these mid-life women, like Theresa, relied on their parents to help them pay their bills after their gray divorces.  At 51-years-old and previously married for 21 years, Theresa recently returned to work as an administrative assistant after years of raising the couple’s daughter.  As she thought about going into her retirement years, she worried, “There’s probably no possible way that I could keep a roof over my head with just Social Security.”

More disturbing were the women with no family safety nets in place.  Janice, 61-years-old, divorced her husband after 36 years.  She had stayed at home many years to take care of their two daughters, and when she returned to work, she made very little money and had no long-term health care insurance policy in place.  She agonized about her health and this made her “panic because I don’t have the money now to get insurance.”

Connie, also 61-years-old, was married to her husband for nine years.  Throughout her career, she had worked as a Head Start teacher and then as a home health aide, both of which were low-paying.  After her gray divorce, she had no savings and qualified for Medicaid.  Connie noted that if she took her “retirement this summer at 62, I get a whopping $695 a month [in Social Security], which means that I will have to continue to work until I can’t, obviously.”

A gray divorce should not spell financial ruin for American women.  Stabilizing women’s economic futures involves a series of protections that should immediately be put into place by policymakers.  First, instructing girls in high school about financial planning for all of life’s contingencies should be a mandatory part of public education.

Second, implementing paid maternity leave, paid sick leave, and increased funding for child care would help ensure that women do not fall far behind men in the workforce due to their disproportionate caregiving responsibilities.

Third, Social Security reform desperately needs our attention.  Overall benefits remain too low, and women do not receive any Social Security credits for the years when they take time off from employment to care for their children.  Raising benefit levels and providing caregiver credits for those “time off” years into the Social Security benefit formula would help raise their standard of living once they retire.  These changes would help guarantee that mid-life women not only survive, but also thrive in the new, post-gray divorce chapter of their lives.

Jocelyn Elise Crowley, Ph.D., is a Professor of Public Policy at Rutgers, The State University of New Jersey.  She is the author of Gray Divorce: What We Lose and Gain From Mid-life Splits. (2018; University of California Press).

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