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The number of people age 60 and over getting divorced has risen since the 1990s

Trends in divorces and the divorce rate of people age 60 and over in England and Wales

Divorce statistics show that the number of people getting divorced each year has been falling steadily since the mid-1990s. This is in contrast to the number of people aged 60 and over divorcing which has been rising during this period. This rise is partly driven by the increasing number of people aged 60 and over living in England and Wales. Other possible reasons for the increase, and the characteristics of those older people divorcing, are explored below. While much of the focus here is on men, the trends are very similar for women unless otherwise stated.

Historical trends in the overall number of divorces

There were 31,000 divorces in England and Wales in 1950. The number of divorces rose sharply in the early 1970s after the Divorce Reform Act 1969 came into effect in 1971. This Act made it easier for couples to divorce. Divorces peaked in 1993 when 165,000 divorces were recorded before falling to 118,000 in 2011, the latest year for which divorce statistics are available.

The number of divorces to men aged 60 and over also rose during the 1970s before stabilising during the 1980s and 1990s at between 5,000 and 6,000 divorces a year. The number increased again in the late 1990s and in 2011, nearly 9,500 men aged 60 and over divorced. This is a 73% increase compared with 1991. Similar trends are observed for women aged 60 and over; 5,800 women in this age group divorced in 2011 compared with 3,200 in 1991. It should be noted that men aged 60 and over could be getting divorced from women of any age (and vice versa for women aged 60 and over). So while overall the numbers of men and women divorcing are equal, the number of men aged 60 and over divorcing is usually higher than the number of women in the same age group divorcing because husbands tend to be older than their wives on average.

Historical trends in the divorce rate per 1,000 people

Part of the reason for this increase in the numbers of older people divorcing is that the population of England and Wales is growing and ageing. Therefore, examining changes in divorce rates (the number of divorces per 1,000 married men or women) provides a better indication of trends over time. Taking men of all ages as an example, there were 10.8 divorces per 1,000 married men in 2011, a decrease from 13.6 in 1991.

For those aged 60 and over there were 2.0 or more divorces per 1,000 married men in the 1970s after the Divorce Reform Act came into effect. This then fell to 1.6 in 1991. Since then divorce rates in this age group have increased to 2.3 per 1,000 married men in 2011, in contrast to the downward trend seen for all ages. Even with this rise, still relatively few older men are getting divorced. Again, the trends in the rates are similar for older women as there were 1.2 divorces per 1,000 married women aged 60 and over in 1991, rising to 1.6 in 2011.

Why is the divorce rate rising for people aged 60 and over?

Academic research1 has cited several possible reasons for the increase in the divorce rate among older people. These include:

  • Increasing life expectancy. In 1991, men aged 60 in England and Wales were expected to live a further 21 years. This increased to 26 years for men aged 60 in 20102. Similar rises have been observed for women. This means that even with a small chance of divorce during each year of marriage, marriages are now more likely to end in divorce and less likely to end in the death of one spouse than they were in 1991.

  • A loss of stigma in being divorced. In 1991, there were 404,000 divorced people aged 60 and over in England and Wales, a figure which increased three-fold to 1.3 million by 2010. As it becomes more common to be divorced, there are fewer stigmas attached.

  • Increasing participation in the labour market by women. The employment rate of women aged 16 to 64 rose from 53% in 1971 to 66% in 2012. This means that women have become more financially independent and are more likely to have built up their own pensions. Therefore in general women are now more able to support themselves outside of marriage than in the past.

What was the average length of marriage for people divorcing in 2011?

In 2011, the average3 length of marriage for men age 60 and over and getting divorced was 27.4 years, with only 14% of men in this age group having been married for less than a decade. For women age 60 and over and divorcing, meanwhile, the average length of marriage was 31.9 years. This difference is explained by the fact that husbands tend to be older than their wives, and so by age 60 women have been married for longer than men on average.

The average length of marriage for all people divorcing in 2011 was much shorter at 11.5 years. This might be expected as those who are older tend to have been married for longer.

Who were granted divorces in 2011?

The graphic also shows that as couples get older, men are more likely to file for and be granted the divorce4. Overall, 34% of those granted divorces in 2011 were men, whereas for those aged 60 and over, men were just as likely to be granted the divorce as women. A possible reason for this is women’s lower earnings over a lifetime, and hence their lower pensions compared with those of men. This means that older women who divorce may have more to lose financially than their male counterparts.

Comparing divorces with civil partnership dissolutions

Civil partnership dissolutions were first granted in 2007. Between 2007 and 2011, the latest year for which statistics are available, 92 dissolutions in England and Wales were granted to those aged 60 and over. This represents less than 3% of all dissolutions. By comparison in 2011, 8% of divorces were granted to men aged 60 and over and 5% were granted to women in the same age group. However this analysis is limited because of the small number of dissolutions that have taken place.

1 The Gray Divorce Revolution: Rising divorce amongst middle-aged and older adults, 1990-2009 (Research from the USA).

2 Table D3 in the period and cohort life expectancy tables (2010 based).

3The median has been used for the average.

4Figures exclude 173 divorces (less than 0.2%) which were granted jointly to both parties, and annulments in 2011


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Categories: Population, Families, Marriages, Cohabitations, Civil Partnerships and Divorces, Divorces, Divorce Registrations, Ageing, Older People
Content from the Office for National Statistics.
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