Different generations have drastically different traits. That may be the most obvious statement ever made. Parents don’t understand kids and their newfangled gadgets, and kids look at parents as outdated dinosaurs inching towards irrelevance. That’s been the basis of most sitcoms since the very beginning. And it’s near impossible to pick up a newspaper or magazine—in print or on your iPad—without reading about how Millennials have killed Applebee’s or need to work three jobs to make ends meet and still won’t be able to retire. (Though it’s apparently the post-Millennial Generation Z’s turn to murder various industries.)
One key difference between generations is how they marry, divorce, and raise families. Even though the common refrain is half of all marriages end in divorce, the divorce rate has declined steadily for decades. Breaking down divorce by generation proves an interesting exercise. It illustrates evolving attitudes from one age group to the next.
At the moment, six distinct generations live in America. How each approaches family, relationships, marriage, and divorce, varies a great deal. These ideas form important pieces of their distinctive identities.
As always, there are exceptions to every rule. Statistics paint with broad strokes. No single group is entirely uniform. Within each demographic, you find anomalies and individuals who buck these tendencies. Still, looking at the larger trends, examining divorce by generation, shows us the prevailing norms and how they’ve changed.
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The GI Generation
Also commonly known as the “Greatest Generation,” people born between 1901-1926 make up the so-called GI Generation. In their time, they lived through two World Wars, the Great Depression, and many other significant global events. A marked stance on right and wrong and a sense of duty often define this demographic. They tend to be very this-is-how-things-are and don’t-rock-the-boat.
This also includes how they view marriage and divorce. The “’til death do us part” part of the vows hold a great deal of weight. Marriage is for life. Husbands work, wives take care of the kids and the house. Divorce often carries a stink of moral failing. This group tends to be a stronghold of so-called “traditional values.”
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The Silent Generation
Born between 1927 and 1945, the Silent Generation, also known as the Mature Silents, look similar to the GI Generation. Like the previous generation, many went to war, fighting in the Korean and Vietnam Wars. However, they also largely came of age in the post-World War II economic upswing. In general, this was a time of relative uniformity and conformity. It did, however, contain the first rumblings of the Civil Rights movement and feminism, among other social revolutions.
Also like their predecessors, this generation didn’t rock the boat when it came to marriage, family, and divorce. Again, marriage was largely viewed as an unbreakable bond and divorce wasn’t often a realistic option. People married before they had kids, couples didn’t live together ahead of the wedding, and all those things applied.
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With the Baby Boomers, things changed drastically. Born into the post-War boom between 1946 and 1965, this is one of the biggest single generations in history with some 77 million people. This is also the generation that welcomed rock and roll, civil rights, television, and credit cards. They pushed at traditional boundaries and social norms. Due to the sheer size, these shifts caused substantial change.
This rebellious streak extended to relationships, marriage, and families as well. When we look at divorce by generation, the most drastic shift occurs here. Also known as the “Me Generation,” large slices of the population began to put individual fulfillment ahead of traditional family roles.
More women than ever before entered the workforce. This had the impact of creating more dual-income households, which led to greater spending power. It also meant mothers weren’t as omnipresent as in previous generations. With more of a focus on individuality, divorce increasingly became acceptable. Instead of remaining trapped in an unhappy, or even unsafe, marriage, there was a way out. No-fault divorce came to prominence in this era and you no longer had to provide cause. You could divorce simply because you wanted out of a marriage.
This holds true today. Baby Boomers continue to divorce more than any other age group. In the years between 1990 and 2012, the divorce rate for people 55-64 doubled. For those older than 65, that number more than tripled.
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Baby Boomers also had fewer children than earlier generations. Because of this trend, Generation X, those born from 1965-1980, is significantly smaller. Similarly focused on individuality like their parents, they also have a more cynical view of society and authority. Especially as they watched the dream of the change of the late ‘60s morph into the excess and greed of the ‘70s and ‘80s.
Baby Boomers often emphasized career over family. It was common for both parents to work. As divorce rates spiked, Generation X was the first generation where it was normal to have divorced parents. It wasn’t a moral failing, it wasn’t necessarily bad, it was often a simple fact of life. The response to this, however, is interesting.
Statistically speaking at least, Generation X reacted to the increased divorce rate by staying married. As a whole, more members of this generation waited until later in life to marry or put it off completely. But once they walked down the aisle, they’ve stayed married at much higher rates than their parents.
Approximately 70% of marriages in the ‘90s lasted at least 15 years. That’s up from 65% for the two previous decades. And this trend also continues. Divorce rates are even lower for couples married in the 2000s.
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Millennials have a bad rap. According to the media, they’re responsible for the death of everything from home ownership and golf to restaurant chains like Hooters and banks. It’s comical at this point, all the destruction they’ve been blamed for. They’re the first generation to grow up exclusively with computers in schools and homes. Generally raised by involved parents, they also have a reputation for being entitled and self-obsessed.
As far as breaking down marriage and divorce by generation, they also continue some of Generation X’s patterns. Millennials have a 26% marriage rate. Compare that to 36% for Gen X, 48% for Baby Boomers, and 65% for Mature Silents. They, too, put off marriage and family at higher rates than ever.
This generation is still too young as a whole to conclude much, but they paint an interesting picture. People point to many factors for this evolution. Changing gender roles is one. An increased focus on and the necessity for education is another—people generally need a college education to compete in the job market, even on a basic level, so they prioritize that path. Financial concerns are another common refrain. It’s more expensive than ever to raise a family. For the most part, both partners need to work full time and still often struggle. People are also starting families and having kids without marrying at higher rates.
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The newest generation—known as Generation Z, Boomlets, Centennials, and post-Millennial’s, among other titles—born after 2001, is just coming into its own. They’re beginning to graduate from high school, some of them anyway. It’s far too early to glean anything definitive about their marriage and divorce habits. But it should prove interesting to watch.
This is the first generation that’s never known a world without cell phones or laptops. And whatever changes they bring, they promise to be big. 2006 saw a record number of births, bigger even than in the Baby Boom. Whatever you want to call this generation, there’s going to be a bunch of them. Maybe they, too, will continue to put off marriage like their predecessors—that’s the way the needle has moved. Maybe the divorce rate will continue to decline. We’ll just have to wait and see.
If you have questions about divorce, contact Goldberg Jones at our Seattle office.
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