The rise of the so-called “silver splitter” is set out in an official study showing that the number of people over 60 getting divorced has risen by three quarters in just 20 years.
For centuries couples getting married have promised to be faithful “’til death us do part”.
But according to the Office for National Statistics, dramatic changes in life expectancy have prompted many couples to reconsider whether they really want to grow old together.
The ONS singled out the fact that people are living longer as the most likely cause for the surge in people heading for the divorce courts as they reach retirement age.
More relaxed attitudes to divorce among the “baby boomer” generation in comparison with their parents and greater financial independence among women were also cited as possible explanations.
But, significantly, the figures show that, in stark contrast to other age groups, men over 60 are as likely to file for divorce as women.
While in 1991, a typical 60-year-old man in England could expect to live another 21 years that figure has risen to 26 years. The pattern for women is similar.
Among men the divorce rate fell from 13.6 per 1,000 in 1991 to 10.8 in 2001.
Divorce lawyers said it could be a combination of men experiencing a “delayed midlife crisis” and unhappily married men waiting until they felt they had fulfilled their responsibilities to their wife and family before starting a new life.
But in some cases, they said, it could be the result of a “silver fox” phenomenon with men increasingly living longer and still retaining a wandering eye.
In some cases the desire by one partner to travel the world on a late life “gap year” also proves to be the trigger for a divorce, they added.
Overall the there were 15,300 people of either gender over the age of 60 getting divorced in 2011, the most recent year for which official figures are available. By contrast in 1991, there were just 8,700.
It came at a time when the overall divorce rate fell markedly from a peak in the early 1990s.
But among men over 60 the reverse happened with the rate rising from 1.6 per 1,000 to 2.3 per thousand.
It is the first time that the ONS has produced a specific study on the so-called “silver splitter” phenomenon.
“This means that even with a small chance of divorce during each year of marriage, marriages are now more likely to end in divorce and less likely to end in the death of one spouse than they were in 1991,” the ONS explained.
The figures underline how momentous a decision getting divorced is for older people. While the average divorcing couple has been married for just 11 and a half years, over 60s who do so have been together for around 30 years on average.
And while overall only a third of divorces granted were initially triggered by applications from the husband, among over 60s they are as likely to be granted to men as women.
Andrew Newbury, head of the family department at Pannone Solicitors, said: “It may come as a surprise to find that older men are responsible for breaking up a marriage.
“However, while it used to be thought that men would have a limited life expectancy beyond retirement, they now live longer.”
He added: “In the past you had midlife crises in fortysomething men – what we are tending to see now is sixtysomething men running off with fortysomething women, it could be a late midlife crisis.”
He said that the stereotypical image of the “silver fox” was undoubtedly a factor in the greater numbers filing for divorce after turning 60.
But he added that some unhappily married men chose to “do their duty” and put off separation while their children are growing up.
“Once people have retired from work there is also a feeling that you don’t have those responsibilities any more – it is not just a responsibility to work it can be a responsibility to family and a new found sense of freedom,” he suggested.
But he added that for people of both genders retirement can trigger a wider reappraisal of their lives.
“I think there is also a growing appreciation of the idea of having a 20 or 30 year retirement ahead of you and finding you have nothing in common with your partner, having fallen out of love,” he said.
“What we also tend to see, which is surprising, is people suddenly wanting to travel the world – it is the ‘bucket list’, the idea of having 1001 things you should do before you die.
“Certainly when you are looking at the baby boomer generation, a lot of those people have immense amounts of financial security: they have ridden across several housing booms and they have generally got decent pensions.
“I think this could be a baby boomer phenomenon.”
Louise Halford, a partner in family law at Irwin Mitchell, said: “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.”
Ruth Sutherland, chief executive of Relate, said: “It is clear from today’s statistics that there are many pressures facing couples as they grow older.
“Relationships are often missing in the current debate on our ageing society but 83 per cent of people we surveyed aged over 50 told us that strong personal relationships were the most important factor to a happy later life.
“This data shows once again that this is a very real issue for many older people.”
James Riby, partner at Charles Russell said the increased simplicity of the financial aspects of divorce law could be a factor.
“Since 2000 the Courts have used simple 50/50 division of assets as the yardstick, whereas previously there would be an argument about what the weaker financial party would need for the rest of their life,” he said.
“Pension funds can also now be split and equalised, but care and professional advice is needed when doing this because comparing some pensions, with their differing contributions and different rights, is not like comparing like for like.”
Source: The Telegraph