By Belinda Luscombe May 4, 2021 7:03 PM EDT Luscombe is an editor-at-large at TIME and the author of Marriageology: The Art and Science of Staying Together.
To the wider world, Bill and Melinda Gates have always appeared to be the Mazda of married couples: not very glamorous, but very reliable and unlikely to break down. So when they announced on May 3 that after 27 years they “no longer believe [they] can grow together” and were divorcing, almost everybody was stunned.
The Internet bristled with speculation about what it meant for philanthropy, global health, the future of tech and the stock market. There were less serious responses too— fake Tinder profiles, jokey memes about Microsoft fails, and spoofs of QAnon speculation about whether Melinda was anti-vax. Alongside those, however, there was a quieter, sadder discussion. What happened? If the Gateses, with all that money, a joint project that had made a real impact, three kids and 27 years under their belt, couldn’t make it, what hope is there for the rest of us?
Shocking as the Gateses’ announcement is, it is not extraordinary. In recent years, the rate of divorce has been going down among all types of married couples, with a notable exception: those older than 50. While most people who are going to divorce do so within the first few years of their marriages, this generation of 50+ folks (Melinda is 57, Bill 65) are more likely to divorce than the 50+ folks who came before them, a trend that is notable enough to have earned its own name: gray divorce.