09/12/2013 09:21 GMT | Updated 08/02/2014 05:59 GMT

Cohabitation and Britain's 'Older Old'

It doesn't seem so long ago that individuals reaching pension age were generally thought to be on life's last lap.

However, in recent decades, greater longevity has become an accepted fact.

Whereas in the early 1980s men in England and Wales were expected to live on average until they were 71, now they're expected to eke out an extra eight years, reaching 79. In the same period of time, women have gained an extra five years and pass the 80-year mark on average.

Just as we as a nation are getting older, our attitudes to expectations of a longer life are changing - economically and domestically.

Only last week, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, George Osborne, was telling millions of workers that an overhaul of the state retirement system meant they would have to work until the age of 70.

Another telling shift came with the publication of a tranche of new data from the Office for National Statistics (ONS) which detailed the lives of those even older.

The immediate headline declared that the number of men and women more than 85 years old had increased by close to 250,000 in the space of only 10 years.

Digging a little deeper, it revealed that twice as many people in that age bracket in 2011 were choosing to cohabit than had been the case in 2001. At least part of the reason, concluded the ONS, was that living together while unmarried had achieved "greater social acceptance" for individuals of an age who would have risked social stigma for doing so in previous generations.

It should not, of course, come as a massive surprise given previous in-depth publications on the topic of cohabitation by the ONS this year alone, each demonstrating the appeal of cohabitation for large swathes of the population.

In October, it reported that whilst the number of married couples has risen by 56,000 in a decade, 700,000 more households are now made up of men and women who have opted to live together but not marry than in 2003.

The ONS had earlier highlighted how the number of children born to unmarried parents had quadrupled in 30 years.

That men and women take the cohabitation option at an age which one might associate with starting a family no longer shocks. It is the fact that individuals in their ninth decade are cohabitees which might cause some to raise an eyebrow, although for those involved in the law, such as myself and my colleagues in Pannone's Family department, there is not necessarily any novelty to these developments.

We have seen a number of older clients who - for want of a more elegant phrase - choose to 'test the water' and live together with someone before deciding whether to marry or not. Cohabitation does not automatically lead to marriage, though. Some choose to cohabit instead of marry, with no intention of heading up the aisle.

The increase in octogenarians sharing a house while unmarried reflects changing times and changing mindsets. So too does the number of over-85s who are divorced.

The latest ONS material spells out how the number of divorcees in that age group has also risen two-fold in a single decade.

Speak to solicitors handling marital break-ups about the phenomenon and they will commonly point to our longer life spans.

Whereas people aged 80 and over might once have remained in an unhappy marriage because they feared that they might not have too many years left, now they are determined that they want to enjoy the rest of their lives and not necessarily remain in a relationship which isn't working just for the sake of it.

We have seen a number of cases featuring men and women in their seventies, eighties and even older, although that shouldn't be interpreted as meaning that they are remarkably frequent. However, my colleagues and I certainly have to handle more now than we ever have done.

People of this age not only have their own circumstances and those of friends to draw upon. They are able to look at high-profile examples, including the former Labour deputy-leader Roy Hattersley, the media tycoon Rupert Murdoch and Hollywood legend Clint Eastwood, all of whom have ended marriages aged 80-plus during 2013.

The changing family dynamic and growing toll of late life divorce might dismay commentators but, as the ONS' figures show, it cannot be discounted or denied.

I consider it to be an illustration of how Britons are adapting to having an extended sense of life and are determined to make decisions in the manner which suits them best.