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‘Silver’ divorces show marked increase since the 1990s

As the general divorce rate declines, it increases for over-60s

Divorce statistics produced by the Office for National Statistics show that the number of people getting divorced each year has been falling steadily since the mid-1990s. However, the number of people aged 60 and over divorcing has been rising during this period. This rise, says the ONS, 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 set out below below.

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.

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.

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

The ONS release is available here.

Louise Halford, a partner at Irwin Mitchell, commented:

"This increase is unsurprising considering trends seen across the past few years.

"It is unfortunate but simply not uncommon in modern times to see couples drift apart as a result of 'empty nest syndrome', when their children head off to university or move out of the family home.This can have a major impact on the dynamic between a couple and bring issues to the fore which may have been hidden by their continued responsibilities to their offspring.

"Of course, another issue is that people are also living healthier, longer lives and simply wish to pursue other relationships. In the past, people may have felt compelled to stay together in old age.

"However, these days if people are in an unhappy relationship at 60, they may consider carefully whether they want to spend another 25 years or more living with that person.

"It is of course important that anyone at that age considering a separation does seek advice, particularly as they may need specialist help in relation to pensions – which are often the most valuable assets in such cases."