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Grey divorce: why more seniors are splitting

If you are considering separating from your significant other, be prepared to be poorer for it.

  • News
  • Read Time: 5 mins

Before breaking up

During and after separating, consider these key factors: 

Capacity to borrow money: The older we get, the harder it is to borrow money. 

Superannuation: Separation could also affect superannuation, the terms of a will and enduring power of attorney, including decisions about health care. 

Pre-nups: A prenuptial agreement can protect your assets when entering a de facto relationship or marriage. It can also provide some protection for children of previous relationships. 

It’s being called the “grey divorce” or “silver separation” revolution. Couples in their 50s-plus are splitting and preferring to face old age alone.

Grey divorce is against the trend. The overall divorce rate in Australia has declined, but not for baby boomers and older Generation Xers. 

According to the Australian Institute of Family Studies, couples who had been married for 20 years or more accounted for more than one quarter of the 56,244 divorces in 2021. 

In the 1980s and 1990s, seniors made up about one in five divorces. 

Why are older couples breaking up?

According to relationship experts, reasons for grey divorce include the “empty nest syndrome”. Many parents have difficulty coping after their children move out of home and they confront important relationship issues that had been hidden while they were busy raising the kids. 

Other reasons are financial pressures and adjusting to retirement, where two people are suddenly face-to-face more often in the house. 

Also, different life plans can emerge, and individuals become more determined to live the rest of their lives the way they want, without compromise. 

Senior lecturer in sociology at Monash University, Barbara Barbosa Neves, told the ABC that societal changes had removed the stigma of divorce. 

“It is no longer a sign of failure,” she said. “That makes it easier for people to actually navigate these life changes without feeling social shame or embarrassment.” 

But she warned the rising divorce rate among older Australia has wider implications. 

Dr Neves said it could lead to financial stress and poor health, placing pressure on children or the government to provide care or support. 

“We have also seen a record number of older renters because of post-divorce across many Western societies, not only in Australia,” she told the ABC. 

“This is because older divorcees are less likely to be able to buy new homes and get mortgages.” 

Poorer for divorce

Australian Institute of Family Studies (AIFS) researchers found divorced people aged between 55 and 74 years had less household disposable income and fewer assets than married couples the same age. 

The study focused on people who had divorced on average 15 to 20 years ago and found their finances remained in a weaker position than their married counterparts. 

On average, divorced single men were $10,000 worse off and divorced single women were $6,300 worse off over the 16 years. 

Divorced men and women were also worse off in terms of household assets in these later years – and the gap appears to be widening. 

Even older divorced men and women who had remarried were falling behind in their assets, compared to couples who had stayed married. 

On the other hand, married people who had never divorced increased their assets at a faster rate than either single divorcees or those who had later remarried. 

The study observed that while household income levels can recover relatively quickly, it takes a longer period for assets such as housing to appreciate. 

AIFS senior researcher and demographer, Lixia Qu, said education levels could be one factor behind why some older people were able to recover their financial position post-divorce more quickly than others. 

“Our analysis shows education levels among older men and women who had stayed married had more than doubled over the past 16 years, whereas educational levels for older divorced people had only increased marginally or remained static. 

“Another contributing factor could be that older married women achieved higher rates of employment, compared to their divorced contemporaries. 

“This doesn’t mean that all older divorcees are experiencing financial, simply that their married counterparts have been able to build up higher levels of income and assets.”

Related reading: ABC, AIFS


John Austin

John Austin

Policy and Communications Officer, National Seniors Australia

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