Is age-adjusted divorce actually way up?

by on March 26, 2014 at 9:54 am in Data Source, Law | Permalink

Kay Hymnowitz reports:

According to new research, far from declining since 1980 as researchers thought, age-adjusted divorce rates have actually risen 40%.

She cites this new paper from Demography, by Sheela Kennedy and Steven Ruggles. The abstract is this:

This article critically evaluates the available data on trends in divorce in the United States. We find that both vital statistics and retrospective survey data on divorce after 1990 underestimate recent marital instability. These flawed data have led some analysts to conclude that divorce has been stable or declining for the past three decades. Using new data from the American Community Survey and controlling for changes in the age composition of the married population, we conclude that there was actually a substantial increase in age-standardized divorce rates between 1990 and 2008. Divorce rates have doubled over the past two decades among persons over age 35. Among the youngest couples, however, divorce rates are stable or declining. If current trends continue, overall age-standardized divorce rates could level off or even decline over the next few decades. We argue that the leveling of divorce among persons born since 1980 probably reflects the increasing selectivity of marriage.

You will find ungated versions here.  I haven’t had a chance to paw through the argument, but it seemed worth passing along.  Hat tip goes to Charles Murray on Twitter.

Tracy W March 26, 2014 at 10:06 am

If the population is aging, and divorce rates have doubled amongst people over 35, how could the overall divorce rate not be rising too?

babar March 26, 2014 at 10:14 am

perhaps divorce rates above age 35 were at a very low level before. it’s alarmist to say “up 40%”. it’s also almost information-free to say that. it could be 1% to 1.4% or it could be 20% to 28%.

Tim March 26, 2014 at 3:05 pm

Part of why this is confusing is that divorces are events not populations. If I have 10 people who get married and 2 people can get divorced an remarried (even to each other) 3 times, If they get married and divorced once in their twenties, then once again in their thirties then again in their fourties, then the divorce rate could double, with 8 of the 10 people staying married the entire time.

ohwilleke March 26, 2014 at 10:24 pm

Because the marriage rate has fallen. Age adjusted divorce rates are calculated per married person of a given age. Overall population divorce rates are calculated per 1,000 or 100,000 people. If there are many fewer marriages and slightly fewer divorces, the age adjusted divorce rate will increase.

Tracy W March 27, 2014 at 5:01 am

Thank you, that makes sense

Benjamin Cole March 26, 2014 at 10:13 am

I blame women.

NYT March 26, 2014 at 11:37 am

I defend women

Urso March 26, 2014 at 11:49 am

“Divorce rates rise, women & children hardest hit”
Although that one actually makes sense.

Ed March 26, 2014 at 10:20 am

This is confusingly presented, and seems like an example of data cherry-picking, but there may be an interesting insight buried here.

What seems to be happening is that the divorce rate in the older age cohorts is up compared to past decades, and the divorce rate in lower age cohorts is down.

If this is true, it indicates that the high divorce rate was a baby boomer thing. When baby boomers were in their 20s, the highest divorce rate was among people in their 20s. When they were in their 30s, the highest divorce rate was among people in their 30s, and so on. As the median age of people born between 1946 and 1964 rises, then you will see the divorce rate rising among people in some older age cohort and dropping among people in some other age cohort. I’m also make a big assumption, without looking at the actual data, that it is the baby boom generation and not gen x which is creating this effect.

babar March 26, 2014 at 10:33 am

that might make sense. to make a wholesale generalization, people who see the personal benefit of divorce while not being aware of the cost.

Finch March 26, 2014 at 11:22 am

To the extent that propensity to divorce is a function of heritable factors, such as time preference, agreeability, etc, perhaps it’s being selected against?

I’d guess that divorced people have fewer grandchildren, partly because divorce (and the run up to it) interferes with having children, but also because children of divorce might be reluctant to marry and therefore produce fewer grandchildren. Somebody might have data on this – it’s just an impression so it might be wrong. I vaguely recall seeing numbers that say that people with many short relationships actually have fewer kids, but I don’t have a cite.

If this was the case, and the population was endowed with likely-divorcers and unlikely-divorcers, you’d expect the legalization and mainstreaming of divorce to be followed by a bunch of the likely-divorcers doing so and subsequently becoming a smaller fraction of the gene pool. But you wouldn’t expect the effect to last, because the population would be depleted and you’d only be left with the unlikely-divorcers. The speed with which this took place would depend on how strong the fertility effect was, and how heritable pro-divorce characteristics are. This should be straightforward to model, and I expect would give rise to an effect concentrated in a generation or two while things sorted out.

Keith March 26, 2014 at 1:43 pm

Interesting theory. How did we get the population that was endowed with likely-divorcers though? Wouldn’t this predisposition have been selected against in previous generations? Is there a compensating selection factor to keep likely-divorcers?

Finch March 26, 2014 at 2:37 pm

It’s conjecture on my part – I’m don’t mean to argue it’s a fact.

But I think one would answer your critique by saying divorce was quite hard prior to quite recently, either because of illiberal divorce law or because of the threat of poverty for unmarried women. So there was no real problem being a likely-divorcer in the past (at least for certain causes) because it didn’t mean you wouldn’t get and stay married.

Keith March 26, 2014 at 4:43 pm

I think the theory has merit. I have heard a similar theory on why the abortion rate is declining. The theory is that after a generation or two of legal abortion, the fraction of the gene pool that are likely-aborters is smaller. Of course, there are other explanations.

This is fascinating stuff, and with all of the cultural changes in the last 100 years, I wonder how this is changing the gene pool. Another example that piques my curiosity is how the presence of more and stronger drugs in the last 80 or so years has affected the frequencies of alleles associated with addiction. Some of these genes are known so theoretically someone could study this.

Mo March 26, 2014 at 11:40 am

Not to mention that previously divorced people have a much higher propensity to get divorced. So a population of people with a higher percentage of divorcees 10 years ago will, even if their divorced and non-divorced populations look exactly the same, have a higher rate of divorce today.

Steve Sailer March 26, 2014 at 8:06 pm

The sheer numbers of the Baby Boom by itself disrupted marriages. Starting in 1964 and continuing until 1982, huge numbers of 18-year-old women arrived at colleges and offices where most of the high social status men, professors and executives, were from the Birth Dearth era and were already married. This set off severe sexual competition among women for the best men (miniskirts, the Sexual Revolution, etc.), and plenty of men responded by trading in old wives with a lot of mileage on them for this year’s model.

This process hasn’t really been seen in America in decades, so things are more stable.

Babar March 26, 2014 at 8:49 pm

This is why 1964 was a bad year to be born male.

Art Deco March 26, 2014 at 9:12 pm

No, the demographic anomaly would have continued for only a few years.

msgkings March 27, 2014 at 2:50 pm

Well, there’s a new boom coming, the ‘millenial’ generation is fairly large too, so maybe that wave of young hussies will be stealing the Gen X ubermenschen in a few more years.

Art Deco March 27, 2014 at 4:27 pm

That increase in the size of birth cohorts was much more graduated and drawn out over a period of 31 years (1976-2007). If women are drawn to men about three years their senior, they would in general be looking toward a male cohort that was smaller than their own, but perhaps 4% smaller, not 30% smaller. The phenomenon would have begun to appear around about the year 2000.

Kay Hymowitz March 26, 2014 at 10:45 am

Tyler: It’s Hymowitz, not Hymnowitz.

Ted Craig March 26, 2014 at 10:45 am

It’s not divorce. It’s conscious uncoupling.

Art Deco March 26, 2014 at 10:46 am

Read the article with care and pay no attention to Kay S. Hymowitz. She’s a lapsed English teacher who is hopeless on any social-scientific subject.

The metric of choice should be the marital attrition rate (ratio of divorces to extant marriages), which I do not believe has increased. What their measuring could be changes in the properties of the life-cycle from one set of cohorts to another. You see that with other demographic statistics, e.g. suicide rates. Between 1955 and 1985, the balance of the population of suicides changed quite dramatically toward the younger age groups; IIRC, suicide in general was not more common, however.

Douglas Knight March 26, 2014 at 11:54 am

Marriages are lasting longer, but starting later, so age-adjusted rates of divorce are higher. Which figure should we care about?

Also, marriages are lasting longer because there are fewer of them: the people who weren’t going to succeed aren’t bothering to try. Isn’t that the main thing Murray cares about, the topic of his book? Why would this study cause any “rethinking”?

Willitts March 26, 2014 at 10:38 pm

Are marriages lasting longer because people are living longer? Or because the life expectancies of men and women are converging?

JSR March 26, 2014 at 11:58 am

The metric used in the paper is the refined divorce rate, which is defined as the number of divorces per 1000 married women. The measure is the same as the “ratio of divorces to extant marriages.” Read the article with care, Art.

NPW March 26, 2014 at 12:03 pm

Why does the rate of divorce matter? How will I veiw the world differently?
The number one cause of divorce is marriage. Perhaps we should stop getting married.

mulp March 26, 2014 at 12:40 pm

But the precondition to getting a job and becoming rich, according to conservatives, is marriage.

Clearly the problem is caused by the leftists since 1980 imposing draconian marriage taxes making being unmarried a tax free lifestyle of wealth and leisure.

Its all the liberal’s fault society has declined since 1980 when liberals took over and dictated morality from Washington DC.

NPW March 26, 2014 at 1:18 pm

The snark doesn’t explain why the divorce rate matters.

Claudia March 26, 2014 at 1:45 pm

Divorce is destructive (and marriage tends to be productive). Some of that destruction make a lot of sense, and too low a divorce rate could be bad as bad as too high a rate. If each person was really a free agent (as economic models tend to assume) then there would likely be less risk-sharing, less economies of scale, less specialization (those are all things stable families can do well). And it would mean more of a role for the government if the private safety net frays. And finally you could worry about divorces as a symptom of some other social phenomena (good or bad). So yes, the divorce rate matters but it is less clear whether we should worried about the current rate (even if we could agree on what that rate is).

collin March 26, 2014 at 12:20 pm

Upon reading I still can’t make heads or tails about why divorce has not declined. The argument is couples aren’t old enough to where the divorces are occurring so the divorce rate is increasing. Sounds like unproven logic to me when the number of total divorces is declining. Why has divorce increased over 35 year olds versus younger people.

1) No longer do we have the shotgun model for young marriages and people are much smarter about their first marriage. By most people putting off marriage, they are making better decisions on whom they are marrying. (I wish Charles Murray and Bryan Caplan accept this fact.) So the divorce rate shot up in the 1970s when society allowed these bad marriage to break up and decided the shotgun marriage was not the right marriage solution.

2) People are living longer and a couple at 65 getting divorce is not unusal today where as decades ago this was unheard of. (Mostly because by 65 to 70 one member was dieing or near dieing.) Consider the Al Gore divorce here.

3) There is historical age demographic here. Even at 1990 more people believed divorce was not an option.

4) Lastly, older divorces probably have a lot less negative effect on woman and children than the divorces of the latch key kids in the 1970s. If a new empty nest couple at age 50, divorce this has minimal effect on the grown children and the wife might be supporting herself here. Again, think of the Al Gore divorce and how little this effects of the divorce is bad for the children. (My guess here is the children might have known a lot of the issues of the marriage.)

mulp March 26, 2014 at 12:56 pm

Well, the leftist from Hollywood made divorce respectable when he was sworn into office on Jan 20, 1981. Remember, he divorced Jane Wyman at age 38.

riverdawg March 26, 2014 at 2:46 pm

Jane Wyman wanted the divorce, Ronald Reagan didn’t. But don’t let the facts get in the way of your political agenda.

mishka March 26, 2014 at 12:30 pm

How about a simple explanation: divorce_rate = f(net_worth)?

mulp March 26, 2014 at 1:11 pm

Maybe its a function of the rate the Federal debt burden is increasing, which reversed direction and has increased steadily since 1980 except for periods when asset bubbles generated Federal tax revenues from taxes on phantom capital gains (which only conservatives believe can actually be real – in the natural world, capital assets of all stripes always depreciate in value and only scarcity explains higher prices.)

Floccina March 26, 2014 at 2:33 pm

Seems obvious that women in the past stayed with some real bums now economic changes and the welfare state have given them more of an out.

ohwilleke March 26, 2014 at 10:35 pm

Empirically, the data more strongly support the argument that divorce rate =f(wife’s income/husband’s income) where a low input ratio implies a low divorce rate, a high input ratio implies a high divorce rate, and there is a strong discontinuity between couples with the ratio of less than 0.5 and those with the ratio of more than 0.5.

The class differences are largely a product of the highly non-intuitive fact that the ratio is much lower on average for upper middle class married couples with children than it is for working class married couples with children. This flows mostly from (1) assortive marriage,(2) a much larger income penalty for upper middle class women who take time off to have kids than for working class women who have kids (and often can’t take time off which wouldn’t impact their earnings if they did), (3) stagnant economic prospects with high unemployment rates for working class men relative to surging economic prospects with low unemployment rates for upper middle class men, and (4) birth control reducing periods when parents have young children.

Choices of cohabitation rather than marriage (with high instability) and higher divorce rates of couples that do get married, are highly correlated with each other. Also, likelihood of staying in a marriage is pretty indiscriminate. Good marriages and bad marriages alike stay together in cases of economic dependency and don’t in cases of economic independence.

Nikki March 26, 2014 at 12:50 pm

That’s what happens when extramarital fun leads to public apologies and getting kicked out of office. Stop meddling in other people’s bedroom affairs, the divorce rate will be down in no time.

mulp March 26, 2014 at 1:05 pm

Reagan was the first president to ever be divorced. And he divorced at age 38.

Republican presidential candidate John McCain has divorced how many times since he turned 35… As far as I know he’s never apologized.

The Clintons are still married three decades after age 35.

dearieme March 26, 2014 at 2:06 pm

Ah yes, the intern solution.

riverdawg March 26, 2014 at 3:08 pm

Yes, the Clintons are still legally married but they haven’t lived together in about ten years and very rarely see each other.

Steve Sailer March 26, 2014 at 8:09 pm

Who is Hillary sleeping with? When that 3 AM call comes to the White House in 2017, who else will it wake up besides President H. Clinton?

Art Deco March 27, 2014 at 8:19 am

Huma Abedin.

msgkings March 27, 2014 at 2:52 pm

LOL, nice one Art

Art Deco March 26, 2014 at 9:10 pm

McCain was divorced once, 33 years ago. Mr. Reagan was the defendant in a divorce suit initiated by Jane Wyman, who had only pro-forma grounds; Reagan never initiated a divorce suit against anyone, de facto or de jure. Wyman had five civil marriages to four different men. Her marriage to Reagan was the only one which lasted more than four years and the only one which produced any children.

Democratic talking points never die and are seldom better than tendentious.

Willitts March 26, 2014 at 10:36 pm

When your marriage is and always was a sham, it doesn’t matter if you ever divorce.

Art Deco March 27, 2014 at 8:16 am

Not precisely a sham, but a weird and decadent thing contracted by two very abnormal people. Mrs. Clinton is a fantastic example of ambition consuming everything else like fire and her husband seems for all the world a Hollywood type – all about adulation and the next bj.

Most of the prominent Democrats who stood for the presidency during the period running from 1967 to 1990 were decent people in their mundane lives and not tainted by public corruption. Lyndon Johnson and the Kennedy claque were not, but the press was protecting them prior to 1975. Richard Gephardt was something of a lizard as a politician, Jesse Jackson had a subcultural base that did not care about good behavior (and the press was protecting him), Gary Hart’s career was instantaneously destroyed by bimbo eruptions, and all-the-king’s-horses-and-all-the-king’s-men could not put Crown Prince Teddy back together again. It now appears that the period around 1990 constituted a cultural watershed and the taste preferences of partisan Democrats changed dramatically toward an affection for sociopaths, Ken dolls, and kooks. Call it the ‘chicks-dig-jerks’ principle.

dearieme March 26, 2014 at 2:03 pm

Are divorce rates like murder rates i.e. evidence that Americans don’t much like each other? Presumably not; there must be plenty of countries where couples don’t divorce much and have affairs instead. And plenty where they don’t marry much in the first place.

Do drug-taking rates suggest that people don’t much like each other?

Benny Lava March 26, 2014 at 4:00 pm

I suspect that the discrepancy between rising rates above age 35 and lower divorce rates overall is a function of the smallness of gen X. Basically the boomers and the millenials are so big that their lower divorce rates are masking the rising rates of gen X divorce. Possibly because boomers already had their divorces and millenials won’t get their divorce for another decade still. Or maybe never as they are more likely to cohabitate and forego children.

Anyone care to crunch the numbers for me? I don’t have time today, just enough time to troll and snark today. Sorry.

Willitts March 26, 2014 at 10:34 pm

How is divorce-adjusted age doing?

Buce March 27, 2014 at 6:44 pm

In my youth (50s) men had to get married to get laid and women, to get supported. Once these both stopped being true, the old incentives were gone. I can believe new incentives took their place, perhaps with fewer and more durable marriages.

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