The devastation of divorce for older women

While America’s divorce rates are leveling off, here’s a significant footnote to the data: Divorce among baby boomers is surging.

Boomer divorces  more than doubled from 1990 to 2010, according to research from Bowling Green’s National Center for Family & Marriage Research. With this cohort entering retirement at record rates, that raises issues about how a divorce will affect them right as their golden years are supposed to kick in.

For older women, the story may not have a happy ending, according to new research from Boston College economist Claudia Olivetti and Dana Rotz of Mathematica Policy Research. Examining survey data of about 56,000 women, they found that those who divorced at later ages were more likely to be still working full-time between the ages of 50 to 74.

“A 10-year increase in age at divorce is associated with a three percentage points increase in the propensity of a woman to work full-time when observed between ages 50 and 74,” they wrote in the paper, which was published at the National Bureau of Economic Research. Having gone through a divorce “has long-run consequences for older women’s marital, work, and retirement decisions, above and beyond the impact of past divorce on current marital status.”

While the researchers didn’t examine how divorce affects men’s labor rates, it’s likely that the impact would be less than that for older women. While more men are dropping out of the labor market, they still have higher labor force participation rates than women, at about 70 percent to 58 percent, respectively. 

Women are also more likely to take career breaks to care for family members, which can hamper their ability to rejoin the labor market and can depress their earnings when they return.

It turns out that a bad marriage might have an upside, at least for some women. Those whose marriages were at high risk may end up better prepared for life after divorce than women who were in low-risk marriages that later fell apart.

Women with a high divorce risk “invest more in their own human capital within marriage, which might insure them against increases in exogenous divorce risk at later ages,” the researchers noted.

The Social Security Administration has singled out the issue of divorce and older women. It said in a 2012 research paper that recent divorce trends suggests “increasing proportions of women will be divorced when they reach retirement.” Women who married but later divorced end up worse off than their never-married female counterparts, the agency found.

Twenty-two percent of divorced women over the age of 80 are poor, compared with 15 percent of widowed women and 17 percent of women who never married, the agency found.