National Post

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Monday, December 20, 1999

Baby boomers may pay high price in old age for soaring divorce rate
StatsCan report warns of effects on parents, children
Eric Beauchesne
Southam News

OTTAWA - Baby boomers, particularly women, may end up paying a high price in old age for their soaring divorce rates, a cost that taxpayers would likely share.

A collection of essays by Statistics Canada and university researchers on the "consequences of population ageing" warns of the impact for divorced elderly boomers and for their adult children.

"A number of events could interfere with the effectiveness of the informal support network of the elderly in the future, the most significant of which is probably divorce," it says. "A number of surveys tend to show that the helping relationships and exchanges among divorced parents and children are not as strong as others, mainly in the case of men."

However, it is divorced female boomers who are in danger of being the major victims in old age, at least financially, and that could weigh heavily on the cash-starved and strained social safety net.

Divorce may already be hurting elderly parents of divorced baby boomers.

"Divorced parents are inclined to give less, both financially and in terms of other forms of support, to their adult children," said one of the authors, Ingrid Connidis, director of the interdisciplinary group on ageing at the University of Western Ontario in London, Ont. "In turn, adult children who are divorced are inclined to give less to their parents, and adult children whose parents are divorced are less inclined to give to their divorced parents.

"In general, women suffer more financially than men do," Ms. Connidis said in an interview. "It's a function of divorce, there's no question.

"But if you compare men who have divorced with men who have not divorced, they also experience financial consequences," she said. "They have fewer financial resources than their married male counterparts.

"Overall, however, it tends to be women who suffer more financially as a consequence of divorce," she said.

Widowhood is currently the major reason unattached elderly women, who have among the highest poverty rate of any group of Canadians at 42%, are without a spouse and the financial support that offers.

That is changing. "Trends in divorce rates indicate that widowhood will decline, and divorce will increase as the basis for being unattached in old age," says the report, to be published in print and on the Internet early next year.

"On the one hand, we can assume that the difference in life expectancy between men and women will shrink, with the result that more couples will be together in old and very old age," it notes. "On the other hand, divorce, which is rising sharply in this generation, will deprive a number of baby boomers of a spouse."

The divorce rate among baby boomers is sharply higher than among earlier generations, Statistics Canada census data show.

The proportion of the population that was divorced at age 35 to 44 was about 14% for boomers born between 1947 and 1961, dramatically greater than the 10% for people born between 1937-46, 6% for those born from 1927-36 and a mere 1% for those born from 1917-26.

If anything, the divorce rates may greatly understate the level of family breakups, says Leroy Stone, Statistics Canada's associate director general of analytical studies.

"It could be that as you go deeper into the baby boom generation, you had more and more people staying out of marriages and going into common law, so that by the time they got to 35 to 44, there'd be less of them to be divorced because they hadn't got married in the first place," he says.

"And the breakups in common law are way, way higher than in legal marriages. I mean way higher and the impacts on children are really sobering because they tend to happen when the children are really young much more often than with the legal marriages."

That would suggest the bonds between common-law couples and between them and their children would be even weaker after a split than among members of a family divided by divorce.

And on balance, the researchers "predict that the number of individuals living alone in old age will show new and sustained growth" once the first of the baby boomers begins to reach age 65 in 2011.

But divorce, not to mention the breakup of common-law relationships, may not only "lower the amount of support from children to their older parents" but also the financial help that the parents are able or willing to give their adult children.

Research has shown that "that older parents with intact marriages give more support for their adult children than do those whose marriages have been disrupted by widowhood or divorce."

"The problem that we have when we talk either about government policy or the implications of trends," said Ms. Connidis, "is that we apply our current understanding to a very different group of people.

"If we look at the parents of the baby boom, they've generally been fairly well off," she said. "The situation for the baby boom could be quite different."

A problem, however is that researchers don't know what the price to individuals, and taxpayers, of divorce on the elderly might be because most research has focused on the impact on children.

Bob Glossop, of the Vanier Institute of the Family, agrees with the Statistics Canada report that more research is needed.

"We've never thought forward to the impact of divorce on an ageing population," he noted.

And there are potential safety nets for divorced women. For example, more have been in the labour force than in earlier generations, they tend to be closer to their children after a divorce, and they appear more able to form social support networks than men.

Copyright Southam Inc.