“Say hi to your new mom!”— Divorce, the ’80s, and Generation X

One of the most marked characteristics of Generation X is having been children during the peak of divorce rates in the 1980s. To illustrate the trend, a March 1995 report from the CDC, with the ominous title “Advance Report of Final Divorce Statistics, 1989 and 1990,”  contains the following graph. (The blue and green annotations and the text explaining them are mine.)

Of course, that graph shows national numbers, but on the first page of that report, we read that the South’s rates were even worse:

The 1990 rate was highest in the South [ . . . ] Compared with 1980, the number of divorces in 1990 was lower in every region except the South. The number declined 3 percent in the Northeast, 6 percent in the Midwest, and 2 percent in the West. Divorces in the South in 1990 (470,000) numbered 5 percent higher than in 1980 (449,000). 

As that paragraph continues, it explains that only eight states had divorce rates that were higher in 1990 than in 1980, and six of those eight were in the South. A series of charts with state-level statistical data appear later in the report, and those tell us that the national divorce rate dropped from 5.2 to 4.7 in that decade of our youth, but in 1990, every Southern state except South Carolina had a rate above the national average. (Louisiana did not report a rate.)

What is also interesting about it is the effect that growing up among divorces appears to have had on us. Another report from US Census Department, this one more recent, provides numbers that show how both marriages rates and divorce rates declined from 1980 to 2008. From 1990 through 2008, Gen-Xers were reaching marriageable age— in 1990, the oldest were 25, and in 2008, the youngest were 28. And amid that decline, the percentage of single-parent households in the US increased:

1980: 19.5%
1990: 24%:
2000: 27%
2008: 29.5%

Using these numbers, it looks like fewer Gen-Xers got married, and the ones who did were more likely to stay married, while married-or-not didn’t stop us from having families and raising children.

But it’s hard to say what happened exactly. The 2015 National Institutes of Health report “Breaking Up is Hard to Count: The Rise of Divorce in the United States, 1980 – 2010” looks at it sixteen ways from Sunday, and their introduction shares that the social changes of the 1960s and ’70s had a lot to do with the high divorce rate. According to the NIH, couples who got married before those changes had a more solid understanding of their roles in a marriage, while those who got married during or after the changes tended to lack that definitive understanding. Those social changes hit hard in the South, where traditional ideas about race and gender roles were deeply embedded in the culture. The white-male-dominated way of life was going to go down fighting.

Those of us who grew up Gen X in the Deep South experienced the ground-level reality of that unraveling, whether at our own houses or our friends’ houses. But, as complicated and unruly as it was, all that chaos may have had a positive effect on the next generation: the report found a “leveling of divorce among persons born since 1980 probably reflects the increasing selectivity of marriage.” Put simply, Gen-Xers are less likely to get married at all, while millennials are more careful about who they marry and when. That’s a stark contrast to the Gen-X Deep South of the 1970s, ’80s, and ’90s, where it wasn’t unheard-of to meet some new woman and be told, “Say hi to your new mom!”


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