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Retirement, Transition


This article addresses retirement as a stage of life as well as the long-term processes through which people anticipate, enter, and adapt to that stage. The word retirement derives from the French retirer (to withdraw), and although retirement is a withdrawal from paid employment, what it is progress toward or into is not always well defined.

The modern norm of retirement

Workers through the ages have sought relief from labor and responsibility toward the end of their lives. Western literatures most famous retiree, King Lear, using the royal we, set Shakespeares (1606) play in motion with this opening speech:

Know that we have divided In three our kingdom. And tis our fast intent To shake all cares and business from our age, Conferring them on younger strengths while we Unburdened crawl toward death. (act 1, Scene 1)

A fortunate king or proprietor could contemplate retirement, trading land and property for the promise of material support until lifes end. Yet unless one had sufficient wealth with which to finance withdrawal from work, retirement as we know it todayleaving the labor force in advance of disabilitywas possible only for a privileged minority. A predictable period of retirement, available to most workers, awaited the development of public and private pension schemes in the twentieth century. These in turn needed the rise of strong governments and welfare states, productive economies, and large numbers of workers surviving into later life.

A retirement stage has now become a normative feature of the life course: people expect, and are expected, to retire. This is true in advanced economies and is becoming so in the developing world. The necessary condition for a retirement stage is peoples reliable access to income that replaces the wages and salaries earned from employment. Governments, employers, and unions pursue various objectives in developing pension arrangements (including public pensions such as Social Security in the United States) and in promoting devices for retirement saving. These objectives include the regulation of labor markets, reduction of unemployment, career stability, and the orderly turnover and replacement of personnel. The general goal is to create a structure of financial incentives, typically tied to age, that eventually draws older people out of the labor force.

Succeeding cohorts of older workers by and large have welcomed these developments; average age of retirement has dropped and the cultural acceptance of retirement has increased. Although retirement was once primarily a male transition, female workers followed the retirement pattern after they had entered the labor force in large numbers. By the 1990s, in the United States the majority of Social Security retirement beneficiaries were taking their first benefit prior to the traditional age of sixty-five. Studies in the 1960s traced growing positive attitudes toward retirement as a time of leisure and not just as a refuge for those unable to work. Marketers of real estate, financial services, and leisure goods have steadily promoted an active, golden years image of retirement.

Despite all this organizational, political, economic, and cultural encouragement of retirement, some 5 to 10 percent of workers in U.S. surveys say they will never retire, and even at ages seventy to seventy-four, 17 percent of men and 9 percent of women still participate in the paid labor force (U.S. Department of Labor). Some who are still working past age seventy do so out of economic necessity, but most of this employment is voluntary. Resolute nonretirees have in common a continuing demand for their skills, good health, a disapproval of retirement, and occupations that allow them to control their conditions of work.

Anticipation and preparation

With a retirement stage solidly lodged on the mental map of life, there is a gathering, informal involvement in the topic that begins years prior to the event. In thinking about their retirement timing and lifestyle, current workers can now draw on the experience of a generation of older role models who have already retired in an era of reasonable income security.

Thoughts of retirement have many prompts. Nearly half of U.S. workers participate in a pension plan at their place of employment. All of these plans have eligibility ages with which employees are familiar, and some plan participants direct their accounts. In the media, adults of all ages have been targeted with ubiquitous advertising of products and services for retirement saving. In politics, the solvency of Social Security has become a prominent theme of each national election cycle.

Workplaces in particular shape an awareness of retirement. For workers with steady employment, promotional timetables and seniority principles draw the arc of an organizational career. Seniority principles grant long-tenure workers better positions and pay in return for the acknowledgment that they will someday surrender their jobs to younger workers. Pension plans can have incentives that encourage retirement within a certain age window, which then becomes a firms customary time for retirement. Employers and coworkers can communicate subtle biases against older workers. Despite legal prohibition of age discrimination in matters of promotion and hiring, and despite evidence that amply demonstrates the skills, loyalty, and trainability of older workers, the idea remains firmly entrenched that creativity and energy are qualities found in younger workers. Job uncertainty, undesirable work assignments, promotion disappointments, supervision by younger managers, or a perception that this isnt the place it used to be are all cues that raise the attractiveness of retirement and hasten emotional disengagement from work roles. However, it is pension availability that permits workers to covet the greener grass of retirement.

With advancing age, retirement becomes topical not just among coworkers and friends, but also at home. Marriage and other family responsibilities influence retirement preparations. Spouses, particularly those in dual-earner households, have an obvious stake in one anothers plans, and they may coordinate their exits if each ones respective pension eligibility schedule allows it. Families that still include dependent children are likely to delay the consideration of retirement while educational expenses compete with retirement saving needs.

These are external cues to an awareness of retirement. Health problems and diminished work capacity are a well-established prompt to retirement. Some authors have identified a subjective switch that takes place in the minds of people in their fifties. Having previously assumed an unbounded future, adults come to focus on the finiteness of life. Mindful of their mortality and now starting to experience the deaths of age peers, workers grow to view retirement as a means to conserve their health and pursue valued personal goals.

The top piece of advice that current retirees offer to those who are still working is Plan ahead. Most formal programs and aids for planning ones retirement center on financial topics, but finances always presume many other questions about lifestyle preferences. Whether with the advice of experts, family members, coworkers, or friends, the immediate preretirement period is a good time to take stock of numerous issues. These include residential options, family ties and obligations, preservation of health, legal matters, and use of time once retired. Couples should also make contingency plans for widowhood.

Passage to retirement

Retirement was once assumed to be a one-way exit from a one-job work career of some twenty-five or thirty years duration upon eligibility for pension or Social Security benefits. Closer study of work and retirement patterns in the 1980s and 1990s revealed the growing variety of paths and job sequences by which workers can retire. One can stop altogether, or switch to part-time work, or start a new full-time job while drawing pension income. These transitions can begin earlier or later than the conventional retirement age window of sixty-two to sixty-five. The earlier they begin, the greater is the likelihood of a complex, multistep path to retirement. Workers differ considerably in their ability to control the form and timing of these transitions, however, and the choices may be limited in practice.

Being retired is also a matter of self-definition. Workers who are disabled or displaced can convert their nonemployment to retirement once they qualify for pension income. There are also former workers who, meeting all apparent criteria as retired, will deny that they are retired because they dislike that identity. Despite the variety of forms, most people understand retirement to mean full or partial reduction in work hours along with the initiation of pension income from public or private sources. By their own understanding, most older people can readily identify themselves as completely, partially, or not retired.

The temporal event of leaving a long-term job or career can be marked with a ceremony organized at the workplace or among friends. Employers ceremonies and parting giftsthe emblematic watch or other tokencan strike honorees as impersonal if large numbers of people are involved. Ceremonies organized among coworkers or friends can be an emotionally satisfying way to recognize the transition, commemorate the career, and greet the future. That so many retirements are soon followed by long-deferred trips and travel suggests the need for symbolic and concrete ways to celebrate the break.


Once retired, whatever form retirement may take, the majority of people say that they are satisfied with their decision, and many say that they should have retired sooner. These sentiments are shared by men and women alike, as shown by responses to a national survey of U.S. retirees aged sixty-two to sixty-five (Table 1). A good experience with retirement is more likely among people in good health, with adequate finances, positive attitudes, and supportive relationships the same factors that contribute to well-being at any age.

What retirees say they value most about their new status is a feeling of emancipation that they express with the words time (to do what I want to do) and freedom (from daily schedules, for personal pursuits). Yet liberation from work structures is also separation from arenas for status, stimulation, mastery, and social commerce. Free but marginal, retirees can feel ambivalent about their status. It doesnt matter what I do can be a joyous or a bittersweet expression.

As befits a withdrawal that is prized for its freedom, retirement is a do-it-yourself role with few specific expectations for its performance. Retirees should try to live independently, and they should not interfere at the former place of work. Retirees and those around them tend to emphasize a busy ethic that prizes activity and engagement, thereby justifying a life of pensioned leisure. While affirming the importance of activity, one can fill time in many fashions. Peoples orientation toward time can differ. Martin Kohli (1986) points out that some people approach time as a task or resource that must be used sensibly, whereas others view time as something to be gotten through as pleasurably as possible. Whatever the level or nature of activity, the absence of rigid expectations is certainly beneficial to those retirees whose health limitations do not allow them to perform at a high level.

Before experience with retirement was widespread and before reliable pension income raised the cultural appreciation of retirement leisure, there was a belief that the transition to retirement would put workers at risk of health decline. Men especially might be undone by the loss of a central life role. Epidemiological studies have discounted the idea that retirement characteristically harms physical or emotional health, or contributes to premature mortality. Indeed, retirees cite the benefits of retirement for preserving health and reducing stress. At the same time, studies have shown that about 30 percent of retirees say that their transition to or life in retirement has at times been stressful (Bossé et al.). This may occur because long-standing personal problems continue into retirement, because retirement was unwanted or unanticipated, or because of the coincidence of other negative life events, such as health or financial difficulties.

Popular lore also warns about the marital problems that can follow retirement as spouses find themselves in unaccustomed daily proximity. Colorful as these anecdotes are, strains are manageable and most couples make the adaptation over time. When still working, couples tend to look forward to the time together as a resource for their relationship, hitherto occupied with work and parenting routines. However, the best-laid plans for a joint retirement can be spoiled by health problems of the spouses or by crises that arise among family members. Whats more, retirement is not likely to transform an unhappy marriage.

Retirement entails a reduction in income, but there are also reductions in the expenses associated with employment, for example, the costs of commuting. Experts say that if households can replace 65 percent to 80 percent of their prior earnings with income from pension sources, savings, or part-time work, they can have a comparable standard of living. An income that seems sufficient or comfortable in the initial postretirement period is nevertheless vulnerable to erosion over the longer term. Unlike the retirement benefit of Social Security, few other pension distributions protect recipients against a rising cost of living. Besides inflation, overconsumption, health expenses, and widowhood also threaten income security. A man in the United States reaching age sixty-five in 2000 has a life expectancy of sixteen more years; a woman at age sixty-five can expect to live twenty more years, but these are averages. Uncertainty about longevity and future expenses means that personal finances and their management will continue to be a concern well after withdrawal from work.

Opinion surveys of working adults consistently find that a large proportion approximately 70 percentwant to work after retirement. Many such plans go unfulfilled, whether through eventual lack of interest, opportunity, or ability. Perhaps one-third of retired persons participate in the labor force, mainly in part-time work and for limited periods. Pension rules tend to bar phased retirement at the original workplace, so new jobs are usually found elsewhere and at lower rates of pay. Nevertheless, income and stimulus from paid work can sustain a satisfying retirement and give one a feeling of control.

Retirees gravitate to quite a variety of lifestyles, no single one of which is the only formula for a successful retirement. Recreation, tourism, and travel certainly do preoccupy some people, and others use retirement as the opportunity to take up pursuits that they have long deferred, such as further education or skill development, a time-consuming hobby, or even a new line of work. Permanent or seasonal migration to retirement havens or resort communities is undertaken by a relatively small percentage of people, even though this mobile style of retirement dominates popular culture. Such leisure consumption notwithstanding, some observers point out the considerable productivity of retired workers as they assist their children and grandchildren in various ways, undertake care and support of other relatives, and volunteer their time and skills in their churches and communities. Whatever the mix of leisure and productive activities, a lot of retirement time becomes absorbed by mundane tasks of household maintenance and by tending relationships with friends and family members.

Unless one re-enters the labor force, the pensioned leisure of retirement extends to the end of life. The retirement stage, however, ends informally when disability curtails the pursuit of accustomed leisure and productive activities. Popular ideas of retirement suppress this darker sidethe eventuality of dependency and deathin favor of images of free, secure, healthy, and mobile individuals. At its most desirable, retirement appears as a hard-earned suspension of time between work and frailty. In reality, retirement is integrated with the rest of life, woven through with ongoing family, social, religious, and geographical ties that can ground the self across the later years.

What should retirement be?

The retirement stage that workers anticipate, enter, and occupy is widely available only because of larger political and economic arrangements that created pension supports for retirement. These supports developed across the twentieth century in order to manage the size and composition of the labor force. As a creation of institutional policy, the evolving practice of retirement continues to be a policy focus for the future.

After a decades-long trend toward earlier exitsnow haltedpowerful interests are pulling the timing of retirement in more than one direction as the twenty-first century begins. Concerned about population aging and the solvency of public pension schemes, the nations of the industrialized West have begun to favor policies that extend work life. For example, the U.S. Social Security program is gradually raising its eligibility age for full benefits from sixty-five to sixty-seven. At the same time, advertisers are strenuously pushing a positive image of retirement to middle-aged and older adults who are a prime market for financial, health, and recreational products. Such promotions raise expectations for a life stage promising release, self-development, and active lifestyles. Finally, employers want flexibility above all in the management of personnel flow. Prevailing conditions in different industries and occupations will shape demand for older workers, and with it the shifting of incentives to remain, retire, or work part-time.

Some have argued that the time has come to rethink retirement, what with increased longevity, health, and wealth among the new cohorts of retirees, as well as pointed political challenges to their age entitlements. A third age devoted primarily to leisure washes meaning from peoples later years and wastes human resources that could be applied to pressing social problems. New organizational forms could channel the energies and talents of elders toward civic contributions and build a legacy for their communities.

The retirement stage will continue to serve both social and personal purposes. Organizational, societal, and economic objectives will further fashion the arrangements that make retirement feasible, even as individuals use the opportunity to seek security and novelty, self and service.

David J. Ekerdt

See also Leisure; Life Course; Pensions, Public; Retirement, Decision-Making; Retirement, Patterns; Social Security, Long-Term Financing and Reform.


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