Silver separation could be a headache for women

Ronnie and Jo Wood pre silver separation. Sean Dempsey/PA

Longer and healthier lives mean more married couples in their 60s are spying the possibility of second chances. Office for National Statistics figures released yesterday suggest the trend for “silver separators” in the UK is still building. In 2011, divorce rates among men over 60 had increased by 44% since 1991 despite an overall decrease in divorce rates. The figures are at their highest since the Divorce Reform Act made it easier for people to divorce in 1971.

In the US, divorce among the over 50s has doubled in the last 20 years. This is paralleled in Australia, where the average age for divorcing couples has risen from an average of 34 to around 43. This is no blip, and there is every reason to believe that silver separation rates will continue to rise and keep at a much higher level for the long term.

Office for National Statistics licensed under the Open Government Licence v.1.0

This is positive. It signals increasing independence amongst older people. They will increasingly have new opportunities, and more of a role in society, rather than be assumed to be “retiring” from social life as well as career when they reach a certain age. Longevity and the possibility of new adventures is something to be celebrated.

The report suggests that these increasing break-ups are due to a combination of longer life expectancy, a loss of stigma in being divorced, and increasing participation in the labour market by women. However, this increase may not be sufficient.

Not the whole story

For women, divorce late in life could be a risky strategy. There is a real danger that, without further changes to female employment expectations, older women will become the fastest growing disadvantaged group in society. Women live longer, and more and more of them live alone. Pensioners in general are also more likely to be affected by poverty, and therefore single older women are at greatest risk of poverty and isolation.

By contrast, men are more likely to have worked for longer, and in positions where they are being paid more and have accumulated more in the way of savings and a pension pot. For example, EU figures show that among 55-64 year-olds, around 60% of women aren’t working, compared with 40% of men.

Office for National Statistics licensed under the Open Government Licence v.1.0

The basic solution is for women to be more engaged in work throughout their lives in order to provide longer-term social and economic security. The changes in statutory retirement age should help by allowing more people the opportunity to work for longer, and encourage more employers to see the value of retaining older employees on the payroll. This should allow for more flexibility in people’s lives.

If we could begin to break away from the idea of a status quo progression along the conveyor belt of education, work and then retirement - and only ever in that order - then there would be more understanding of the additional demands on women. The greater flexibility that this would allow would engender a more malleable idea of working life. This would encourage time out for children, caring responsibilities, as well as training and development and career changes at different stages.

Axed BBC presenter Miriam O'Reilly. Yui Mok/PA

As ever, the biggest challenges to overcome are all cultural. Any attempt to keep more older women in the workforce is going to be tough, because women are reported to experience ageism at a younger age than men. While the world has seen real change in the roles of men and women in the UK over the past 60 years, workplaces have remained strangely unaffected.

There is still an assumption that family life shouldn’t be allowed to impinge on work - meaning that women are still regarded as potentially unreliable due to caring responsibilities, while men are considered to be naturally more focused and rational when it comes to continuing with work. The new legislation allowing greater paternity leave for childcare is a small step in the right direction.

The idea of traditional roles are going to take some time to shift - but need to change to reflect the new realities of extended lives and older populations looking for both security and second chances. The World Health Organisation argues that while years have been added to life, we must now start adding life to years - and this is going to be a highly pertinent issue for women in the coming years.

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