Remember the generation gap?
Perhaps you don't, so passé has the notion become. But allow me to refresh your memory. The generation gap is the idea that as one generation comes of age, shamelessly shimmying its miniskirt and breaking cultural taboos, it will naturally come into conflict with the generation that came before it, whose members are settling into the calm but turgid embrace of social conservatism, the logical conclusion of old age. In other words: Youth equals progress and old age demands adherence to social convention. 'Twas ever thus, yes?
Not any more. Ironically enough, it seems the same demographic cohort that invented the very notion of the generation gap is now determined to do away with it – at least as far as long-term relationships are concerned.
According to a recent report by the U.S. Pew Research Center, a growing number of older people (i.e., those in the so-called "baby boomer" generation) are opting to live together instead of getting married. While the marriage rate is dropping across the board, the aging boomers lead the pack in choosing cohabitation and, in 2016, four million U.S. adults ages 50 and older were cohabiting – up from 2.3 million in 2007.
Here in Canada, the trend also holds true, though the data is less current. According to the most recent census, from 2011, there was a small but significant increase in the number of Canadians between the ages of 50 and 59 choosing to cohabit long-term instead of marry.
In 2006, 9.1 per cent of this cohort were shacking up compared with 10.8 per cent in 2011.
Add to this the emerging Canadian social trend of more and more seniors choosing to "live alone together" (i.e., in long-term relationships but with separate residences) and an interesting new demographic picture of long-term living arrangements emerges. The baby boomers, it turns out, may be the first generation in history to eschew marriage the older they get, rather than instinctively cleaving to it.
But why would this be? Don't most people naturally yearn for the kind of safety and security that marriage offers, especially as their hips begin to give out and their appetite for nightclubbing wanes? Well, sort of. Like everything that massive social cohort known as the baby boom does, the reasons for individual actions are complex and multitudinous and resist simple explanation.
While the baby boomers were certainly one of the first generations to question the legitimacy of marriage, it's important to remember they didn't do so outright. The crude Canadian marriage rate among the eldest baby boomers actually went markedly up between 1961 and 1971, although yes, it has fallen pretty much steadily after that.
What the baby boomers did do that was very different from the generations before them was get divorced en masse, often multiple times. The Canadian divorce rate spiked in the mid-1980s when the government made no-fault marital dissolution legal and, for a while, some 50 per cent of marriages bit the dust. Since then, it's levelled off to a fairly steady one in three.
According to the Pew study, the number of older cohabitants who have never been married or are widowed are in the minority. The majority of those choosing to shack up instead of getting hitched are divorcees: This is instructive, since it stands to reason that a person who has been through divorce might want to avoid going there again and the best way to avoid it is not to get married in the first place.
It also stands to reason that many older cohabitants choose not to marry for the very pragmatic (and decidedly unromantic) reason of estate planning. Skipping the wedding, after all, is certainly cheaper and less stressful than drafting a prenup. (By the way, and contrary to popular belief, so-called "common-law" unions do not carry the same automatic legal entitlements as marriage in most Canadian provinces. There is some legal precedent that rights can be fought for and won in court, but overall, common-law exes are out of luck when seeking restitution.)
I personally know dozens of people cohabiting in their 50s, 60s and beyond: Conducting a casual survey of a handful of these unmarried-but-committed friends this week, I found their reasons for living in proverbial sin were as fascinating and funny as they were wide-ranging. Explanations they gave me included, but were not limited to, "a lingering countercultural suspicion of the outdated institution of marriage;" disdain for the unnecessary fuss and general silliness of weddings; and a pervading sense of "Meh, we're too old now, why bother?"
But the thing I find most striking about the baby boomers' new aversion to marriage is just how counterintuitively romantic it is. Big weddings have always been the province of the young, just as big divorces are the province of the middle-aged. The idea that contented, drama-free cohabitation might be the province of old age is immensely appealing. Here's hoping the baby boomers are on to something.