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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Aging boomers deal marriage a wild card

Gloria Steinem was 66 when she married David Bale, who died in 2003. (Associated Press)

When famous feminist Gloria Steinem married – for the first time – at age 66 in 2000, her later-in-life marriage surprised people.

Boomer watchers expect more Steinem-like surprises as boomers reach their late 60s, 70s, 80s and beyond. No one knows for certain how boomers will couple – or uncouple – in older age, but some emerging patterns may hint at what’s to come.

Boomer divorce – and remarriage rates – may escalate

Divorce rates have already doubled for men and women over 50, while declining in the rest of the population.

About 1 in 3 people who divorce remarry, according to 2010 Census data, but the remarriage rates plummet for those 65 and older. At least now they do. Both divorce – and remarriage rates – among boomers could rise dramatically in coming decades.

In a recent email interview, Stephanie Coontz, director of public education at the Council on Contemporary Families, offered this perspective:

“I think (divorce among boomers) is a long-term trend, connected to the extension of the healthy life span. If you potentially have 35 years of healthy, active living to look forward to, staying in an unhappy or even just ho-hum marriage after the kids are grown seems a very long sentence.

“And the fact that more and more women in their 50s have jobs means that it’s easier to leave (two-thirds of divorces at older ages are initiated by women). Also, as economists put it, there is a ‘thicker’ market for new partners out there, both because of earlier life divorces and because if one partner has died the other still has those extra years to live.

“So I would cautiously say that these remarriages will continue to increase.”

Rather than marry, boomer couples may live together

About 6 percent of men and women older than 50 now “cohabit” according to a report by researchers Susan L. Brown and Sayaka Kawamura of the Center for Family and Demographic Research at Bowling Green State University.

“The share of older adults who are unmarried continues to climb, and baby boomers – the first cohort to cohabit in large numbers during young adulthood – are moving into older adulthood. Prevailing trends portend an acceleration of cohabitation among this age group,” the researchers wrote in a 2010 study of older people living together.

Coontz pointed out that many older boomers hesitate to remarry “because of financial or inheritance complications or because they have experienced divorce once and want to retain their legal and financial independence.”

Or older boomers might just stay single

One in three baby boomers is unmarried, according to Bowling Green State University research reported in the journal The Gerontologist in 2012.

Just 10 percent of unmarried boomers are widowed, the rest are divorced or have never married. The proportion of adults age 45 to 54 who never married increased 300 percent between 1986 and 2009.

This worries the researchers who wrote in The Gerontologist that “unmarrieds tend to have fewer economic resources, poorer health and are less socially integrated than their married counterparts. What remains unclear is whether all unmarried adults are equally vulnerable regardless of marital status (i.e., widowed, divorced or never-married) and whether these vulnerabilities are similar for women versus men.”

Or boomers will live together in new ways

Cohousing, elder communes and intergenerational communities may eliminate fears about isolation among an increasing number of single, older boomers. No one yet knows if these housing options – emerging in some communities – will soon be replicated in cities throughout the United States.