How Boomers Changed American Family Life (By Getting Divorced)
Jill Filipovic on the Generation That Changed Everything
In the 1950s, when most Baby Boomers were kids, the rules were pretty clear: Sex was for marriage (or, okay, a little before marriage, so long as you planned on getting married), marriage was the first step to building a family, and the ultimate goal was to have children within the confines of marriage. “Beneath these notions was a deep fear of women’s economic and sexual independence,” wrote Elaine Tyler May, author of Homeward Bound: American Families in the Cold War Era, in a 1988 Los Angeles Times article:
The best way to contain their career aspirations was to professionalize homemaking; the best way to contain their sexual emancipation was to encourage early marriage and to sexualize the home. Female sexuality unleashed within marriage would strengthen the family; outside marriage, it was seen as a destructive force.
Sexual satisfaction was important, but marriage was its proper container. Sexual profligacy was treacherous, and unmarried, sexually active women were a danger to themselves and others: In movies, the femme fatale was a devious Russian spy; in postwar propaganda, the allegedly disease-ridden “victory girls” could leave a nice young man returning from war with more than a fond memory; in real life, a woman who gave birth out of wedlock might very well find herself ostracized and socially isolated.
Then in 1960, just before the oldest Baby Boomers came of age, came the Pill. Maybe you know what happens next.
Baby Boomers were the first American generation to come into sexual maturity with available and extremely reliable birth control fully in women’s hands. They were also the first American generation to see such a rapid transformation of gender roles and sexual life. The sexual revolution spurred on by the contraceptive pill and, later, legal abortion redefined the American relationship with sex, and relations between men and women. As Baby Boomers became adults, they did what every generation of Americans had done (outside of Baby Boomers’ own parents): they got married later than their parents did, and they had fewer children.
Boomers also had more sex, and with more people. Which doesn’t mean Americans were prudish before—researcher Jean Twenge found that folks in the Greatest Generation averaged three sexual partners apiece, so Grandma wasn’t as prim as she might have seemed. But Boomers really went for it. The average Boomer woman had ten sexual partners in her adult life. Boomer men? Twelve.
Some of these partners are likely from post-divorce dating (or during-marriage dating), but a whole lot of Boomers dated around before settling down, and sex was a part of that. While 83 percent of Silent Generation adults were married when they were between 25 and 37 years old, just about 65 percent of Boomers were—a pretty significant dip. And Boomers who went to college were less likely to be married at that age than those with a high school degree or less.
This new sexual openness shocked older adults. A 1966 U.S. News & World Report story asked, “Is the Pill regarded as a license for promiscuity? Can its availability to all women of childbearing age lead to sexual anarchy?” Pearl S. Buck, the famous novelist who penned The Good Earth, wrote in Reader’s Digest that the Pill’s “potential effect upon our society may be even more devastating than the nuclear bomb.”
The Pill did indeed allow women to have sex without quite as much fear of pregnancy. But whether it unleashed sexual anarchy is another question. Yes, older Boomers were the generation of “free love” and, a little later (with younger Boomers participating), swinging. But the cultural tides were already shifting in that direction pre-Pill. In the immediate hangover after the early 1950s, young women were staying single longer. They were going to school and working in increasing numbers. The cultural emphasis on virginity before marriage was in recession.
Did the Pill come into being just as these changes were at a tipping point? Yes. Did it add a little velocity to what was already accelerating? Sure. But the sexual revolution would likely have happened in some capacity or another even without the birth control pill. What the Pill did was drive down what could have been astronomical rates of unintended pregnancy and, by extension, maternal mortality and unsafe (and until 1973 mostly illegal) abortions.
Single women had already been inching their way into cities, and while nearly all young women 16 to 21 said they wanted to be married, most by 22, that cultural corset was loosening. In 1962, Helen Gurley Brown’s Sex and the Single Girl didn’t so much invent a new category of person—the single, sexually active, financially independent woman—as cast a spotlight on a nascent force. By the mid-1960s, the United States was, as Time magazine put it in 1964, in “an era in which morals are widely held to be both private and relative, in which pleasure is increasingly considered an almost constitutional right rather than a privilege, in which self-denial is increasingly seen as foolishness rather than virtue.” But the 1960s sexual revolutionaries, the magazine was quick to point out, weren’t quite the radicals they thought they were: “In the 1920s, to praise sexual freedom was still outrageous; today sex is simply no longer shocking . . . Adrift in a sea of permissiveness, they have little to rebel against.”
The “they” here? Boomers.
In hindsight, sex in 1960s America doesn’t exactly sound hedonistic. “‘Nice girls don’t’ is undoubtedly still the majority view, but definitely weakening, as is ‘No nice boy will respect you if you go to bed with him,’” Time wrote in that same 1964 article. A nice girl could still be nice and have sex with the man she planned to marry, or maybe even a guy she was going steady with, because “the loss of virginity, even resulting in pregnancy, is simply no longer considered an American Tragedy.”
“This was a generation that was new to these kinds of issues,” author, historian, and director of research and public education for the Council on Contemporary Families Stephanie Coontz told me. “This was a generation that wasn’t completely new to sex but was certainly much more ambivalent about the role sex played in your life and when you did it. For women in particular, just because of biology in addition to the cultural pressures, you needed to be aware you could get pregnant, and it was safest to only have sex with someone you thought would marry you if you did get pregnant. All these things have changed for the next generation.”
Over the next decade, sexual mores in America liberalized even further. Decoupling sex from pregnancy allowed American women to live more independent lives than ever before. The pop culture landscape reflected this profound shift. In 1961, Mary Tyler Moore made a splash as Dick Van Dyke’s television wife, Laura Petrie, a stay-at-home mother who had met and married him at seventeen. By 1970, she was the lead character, Mary Richards, in The Mary Tyler Moore Show. With an iconic toss of her hat in the air, she became the joyful single career woman forging her own path.
In 1973, the Supreme Court decided Roe v. Wade and legalized abortion nationwide. That newfound right gave women veto power over pregnancies and with it the ability to delay marriage and motherhood until they felt ready. The relationship between the feminist movement and these legal and scientific advances (abortion rights, the Pill) was a mutually reinforcing one. It was feminists who pushed for the invention and then accessibility of the Pill; it was feminists who pushed for abortion rights. Reliable contraception and safe, legal abortion in turn enabled women to be increasingly independent and feminist-minded. Yes, women were already heading to college in larger numbers than in previous decades, but it’s hard to imagine that quite so many would have been able to stay in school and in the workforce without this degree of control over their reproductive lives.
These shifts were revolutionary, but sexual freedom didn’t mean that Boomers forewent marriage. They just married a little later than their parents. By 1975, the average newlyweds were 23 and a half (men) and 21 (women) on their wedding day; through the early 1980s, when the tail end of the boom babies were marrying in significant numbers, the average groom was 25 and the average bride was 23.
But they were also divorcing.
When young marriage was practically required for social acceptance, a lot of young people settled into mediocre or even bad marriages. Maybe you were in a just-okay marriage with someone you didn’t like all that much and to whom you weren’t particularly attracted, but the relationship was a vehicle to an acceptable middle-class life; maybe you were married to someone who was intolerable, cruel, or even abusive. As the expectation of marriage as a social requirement waned, divorce rates initially skyrocketed. By the time Millennials entered adulthood, marriage was no longer a required stepping-stone to an acceptable adult life. We may marry less frequently, but so far, our marriages are more stable because of it.Boomers—the same generation that came of age with the Moral Majority, founded in 1979—are the generation with the least stable marriages in American history.
Boomers can’t say the same. If anything really sets Boomer marriages apart, it’s divorce—they do a lot of it. Older Boomers brought the nation a glut of divorce in the 1970s and a national divorce rate that peaked in 1980. While younger generations of Americans divorce less often, Boomers just keep splitting up into middle and even old age. While dissolving these marriages might be for the best, divorce is financially hard on Boomer women in particular. The National Center for Family & Marriage Research at Bowling Green State University found that while divorced men over fifty have slightly better than a coin’s toss chance of remarrying, only about a quarter of divorced women over fifty tie the knot again (perhaps by choice).
Divorce is rarely financially lucrative, but women over 50 who experience these “gray divorces” see a much larger gap between their post-divorce assets and their husband’s (and women who first divorce before age 50 and then divorce for a second time after 50 are left with the least). Susan Brown, a sociology professor Bowling Green and the center’s co-director, told Bloomberg News that, according to the center’s yet-to-be-published research, gray divorce halves women’s wealth. Older women also experience more than twice the household income decline older men do when they divorce—and about twice the decline younger women experience (young divorced men see little impact on their household income).
These same over-50 women, Brown said, recover neither their pre-divorce wealth nor their previous standard of living. This is in part because Boomer women were more likely to work part-time or not at all—they were caring for the kids so their husbands could work full-time. But that depressed their earnings, leaving them much more financially vulnerable later in life. Brown and her fellow researchers found that 27 percent of women over the age of 63 who are either gray-divorced or never married live in poverty. For men in that same demographic, the poverty rate is just 11 percent.
Roughly one in three Boomers is unmarried. Widowhood and never marrying in the first place play a role, but declining Boomer marriage rates are mostly because of divorce. Boomers are the first generation that has increased its divorce rate as the cohort aged into their fifties and beyond, making Boomers—the same generation that came of age with the Moral Majority, founded in 1979—the generation with the least stable marriages in American history.
Excerpted from OK Boomer, Let’s Talk, published by One Signal Publishers, a division of Simon & Schuster, Inc. Copyright © 2020 by Jill Filipovic.