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Transition Retirement

The Modern Norm Of Retirement

Workers through the ages have sought relief from labor and responsibility toward the end of their lives. Western literature’s most famous retiree, King Lear, using the royal ‘‘we,’’ set Shakespeare’s (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 life’s end. Yet unless one had sufficient wealth with which to finance withdrawal from work, retirement as we know it today—leaving the labor force in advance of disability—was 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 people’s 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.

Additional topics

Medicine EncyclopediaAging Healthy - Part 4Transition Retirement - The Modern Norm Of Retirement, Anticipation And Preparation, Passage To Retirement, Adaptation, What Should Retirement Be?