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Transition Retirement


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 doesn’t 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. People’s 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. What’s 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 percent—want 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 side—the eventuality of dependency and death—in 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.

Additional topics

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