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  • Far from declining since 1980 as researchers thought, age-adjusted divorce rates may have actually risen 40%. Tweet This
  • The growing popularity of cohabitation lowers the divorce rate, but contributes to more union instability overall. Tweet This

Most of us in the family studies business have had people look at us strangely when we tell them that divorce has declined over the past three decades. Forget about the anecdata, we tell them. Those friends, relatives, and perhaps even you yourself, who have been emptying their life savings into the laps of lawyers, can’t change the big picture: in the 1970s Americans got divorced like crazy, but after 1980, they calmed down. Since then, divorce rates have declined, pretty much steadily. On hearing this, most people shrug and move on. There’s no point in quarreling with the numbers.

Or is there? A new paper by Sheila Kennedy and Steven Ruggles appearing in the most recent issue of the journal Demography not only battles with the numbers, it kicks them and much of the accepted wisdom about divorce rates out of the house. Divorce has not gone down, they argue compellingly: it has risen to record highs.

Kennedy and Ruggles spend the first half of their paper, nicely titled “Breaking Up is Hard to Count,” explaining why demographers could have been so wrong about what may strike the uninitiated as a rather easily calculated figure. To oversimplify a complex story: the United States has been lousy at collecting data. Individual counties may keep pretty good track of finalized divorce cases, but someone else—meaning the states—has to collect and tabulate that information, and someone else—the Census Bureau—has to put it all together.

There were occasional periods of our history, including between the years 1960 and 1990, when we were pretty good at that. But in 1996 the federal government lost interest in the whole enterprise and stopped providing financial support for detailed state collection. By 2005, six states including Georgia, Minnesota, and California—California!—stopped reporting entirely. In sum, since 1996 and possibly earlier, researchers have been digging divorce information out of a drought-ridden, muddy pool of information.

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

In their paper, Kennedy and Ruggles rely on an entirely different source of information: the American Community Survey, an ongoing sampling of population in every state. Here is what they find: far from going down about 20% since 1980 as researchers had previously concluded, the overall divorce rate has declined only 2.2%. Worse, when you control for the change in the age of the population between 1980 and today—the population of married men and women is considerably older now—the divorce rate has actually risen 40%. By these measures, after a brief pause in the recessionary year of 2009, the divorce rate peaked in 2011. “By 2010,” they write, “almost half of ever married Americans had divorced or separated by the time they reached their late 50’s.”

If you’re looking for something or someone to blame for this dismaying state of affairs, the Boomers, those born between 1945 and 1954, are your best bet. They joined the divorce revolution early on and have stayed true to it ever since. In the 1970s, Boomers, who were then in their twenties, and middle-aged couples were more or less equally likely to divorce. By 1990, that was no longer the case; couples in their twenties and early thirties were looking more stable, while Boomers, now in their forties, continued to divorce “at unprecedented rates.” Since 1990, the biggest rise in divorce has been among women over 45; there was a particularly “massive increase” in divorce among women in their fifties. (For methodological reasons, the authors track women only.)

Meanwhile, younger married couples, including those in their teens and early twenties, who used to be at high risk of breaking up, are actually enjoying more stable marriages than their older peers did at their age. The authors find that 18% of the most recent marriage cohort separated within five years of marrying; that’s compared to 21-22% of first marriages formed by the previous two cohorts.

Cohabiting unions have always been less stable than marriages, and they remain so today.

Still, Kennedy and Ruggles complicate the Boomers-ruined-marriage story by bringing cohabiters into the mix. They note that the reason divorce is lower for younger married couples today than it was for Boomers is that the population most at risk of divorce—teens and high school dropouts—are not getting married in the first place; instead they’re living together. (Interestingly, though as everyone knows men and women are typically marrying at later ages than in the past, they enter a first union—be it marriage or cohabitation—at about the same age as they used to; in fact about 35% of women start living with a partner or spouse in their teens.)

Cohabiting unions have always been less stable than marriages, and they remain so today. Half of cohabiters broke up within five years in all three cohorts, say the authors, but so many more people in the younger cohort live together rather than marry that the result is more union instability overall.“Our results document striking growth in…turbulence since the 1980s,” the authors conclude. “Divorce at age 40 or higher is much more common than it was,” and “because cohabitation makes up a rapidly growing percentage of all unions…they have an increasing impact on overall union instability.”

Skeptics or optimists do have one slender reed to grasp: remember that Kennedy and Ruggles rely on the American Community Survey for their data. It’s a household survey filled out by a single individual, and as the authors themselves recognize, it hasn’t always been reliable on divorce reports. Guess we’ll find out just how unreliable when other researchers decide to quarrel with the numbers.