Commentary by Bill Buchanan
For years baby boomers were on the leading edge of cultural trends. This dubious honor now extends to divorce. Boomers are untying the marital knot at a rate never before seen in this country. While divorce rates for other groups have declined since reaching their peak in the 1980s, divorce rates for people over 50 have doubled in the last two decades. In 2009, more than 600,000 people older than 50 got divorced. That is more people than live in the state of Wyoming.
There are various theories for the accelerated rates. One researcher offered the theory that in the past, people did not live as long. “You can’t divorce if you are dead,” she proposed.
I don’t buy that. I believe there are a couple of reasons for higher divorce rates among my generation. Baby boomers are selfish. Everything has always been about us. We were told we were special and we bought into it with a vengeance. Previous generations had their character forged by the Great Depression and two world wars. We mostly grew up with peace and prosperity. We have had the easiest time of any previous generation, and we have come to expect life’s skids to be greased for us. As anyone who has said their vows can attest, that is not always the case with marriage. At times, marriage can be difficult, and requires more work than some are willing to put into it. The potential to run into problems is always looming when two selfish people from the same selfish generation get together.
Another major reason for higher divorce rates is the lack of cultural stigma now attached to it. When I was growing up in the rural South, divorce was a big deal. Not many couples split up, and a lot of people looked sideways at those who did. My family is a textbook case. I know of only two divorces on my mother’s side of the family in the last three generations. That is not to say there shouldn’t have been several more. My mother’s family was very religious, and divorce was strongly frowned upon. Some people in my family were horribly mismatched. But they stuck it out to avoid the Southern Baptist “stink eye” stigma that would have been on them like a bad haircut.
For instance, take the star-crossed union of my Uncle John and Aunt Bertha. Uncle John had a big heart and terrific sense of humor. And while Uncle John was a little eccentric, my aunt made characters from Tennessee Williams seem normal. Most of my aunts were loving and outgoing women. Aunt Bertha was reclusive and paranoid. It was like having Richard Nixon as your aunt.
Of course, even if there had been more divorces, I might not have been told about them. My family was very secretive about bad news and scandals within the family. My Uncle Wayne was killed in a bar when I was a young child. In the late 1950s, my daddy and four uncles left Alabama to look for jobs. They found construction work in North Carolina. Apparently Uncle Wayne found more than a job there. He was with a woman when her husband came into the bar and shot him dead. In the 1950s, North Carolina was not the best place to seek judicial sympathy if you were found with someone else’s wife. My uncle’s murderer was tried and acquitted. This is sometimes referred to as the “he needed killing” defense. This happened when I was 5 years old. I didn’t find out about any of it until I was grown.
Whatever the reasons, the boomers are once again leading the cultural charge, although in this case, not in a direction anyone would be proud of. In one week I will celebrate my 34th anniversary with Ava. Like Nehru jackets and disco, this is one of the baby boomer trends I am very glad to have missed.