It has been said that something as small as the flutter of a butterfly’s wing can ultimately cause a typhoon halfway around the world – Chaos Theory

This is one of those “butterfly effect” theories, which I always love.  It tells us how a woman flapping her proverbial wings in the 1950’s and entering a university and then the work force may have led to the current “Gray Divorce” trend (the increased divorce rates among the baby boomer generation), which I blogged about several weeks ago.

Despite the fact that I attributed the phenomenon generally to the fact that baby boomers were trend-setters – bucking tradition in favor of their own self-created norms – I wasn’t satisfied.   Indeed, can a mere change in attitude account for a divorce rate that has increased by about 150% within just twenty years?

Maybe that was part of it; but I suspected there was more.  So I did some more digging.

I started by examining what changed in those twenty-years, between 1990 and 2010, that would account for the jump from a 10% divorce rate among ages 50+ to 25%. But in order to do so, I had to look back in time to examine the root cause of the issue.

That is when I stumbled across a working paper by Raquel Fernandez and Joyce Chen Wong of the National Bureau of Economic Research entitled, The Disappearing Gender Gap: The Impact of Divorce, Wages, and Preferences on Education Choices and Women’s Work.

The paper notes increasing divorce rates between 1935 and 1955. Rising divorce rates, of course, disproportionately affected women who usually had responsibility for keeping the home and raising the children (hence, alimony laws, but that is a different discussion for a different day). So women took matters into their own hands to protect themselves and their families from financial ruin.

The paper posited:

The increased probability of divorce faced by the 1955 cohort, in particular, is a key driver of the increase in women’s work and it produced the desired asymmetric reaction in the education choices of men and women, helping to reduce the education gender gap significantly.

Thus, whereas women born in 1935 participated in the workforce at a rate of only 40% between the ages of thirty and forty, those born in 1955 averaged 70% work force participation over the same ages.  University enrollment also tripled for women during the same years.

170px-We_Can_Do_It!  (“We Can Do It! by J. Howard Miller)

But here’s the missing link – a possible connection between increased education, workforce participation and divorce.

Author Stephanie Coontz, in an essay entitled “The Future of Marriage”, has argued that marriage has historically been a product of the economic environment at the time.  A number of goods and services, such as homemaking were historically not a fungible within society. The household responsibilities thus fell on the women of the 1930’s and 1940’s.  In exchange, the men provided the financial support, health insurance and security.

However, that all changed in the 1950’s and 60’s when women significantly increased their entry into the workforce.  The baby boomer generation was thus the first to experience greater gender equality, both in the home and in the workplace, thereby obviating the need for this social contract.  This could account for the trend, but it is not the end of the inquiry I suspect.

Interesting how a flock of women stepping through the doors of a university in 1950s may have created a venerable tidal wave which led to a shift to our economic, social and familial landscape.


Eliana T. Baer is a frequent contributor to the New Jersey Family Legal Blog and a member of the Family Law Practice Group of Fox Rothschild LLP. Eliana practices in Fox Rothschild’s Princeton, New Jersey office and focuses her state-wide practice on representing clients on issues relating to divorce, equitable distribution, support, custody, adoption, domestic violence, premarital agreements and Appellate Practice. You can reach Eliana at (609) 895-3344, or