The Psychology of Retirement

12 April 2017 -


Retirement is no longer all about gardening and looking after the grandchildren, the modern retiree is living life to the full

Guest blogger Adrian Furnham

Ideas about retirement have changed radically as a result of an increase in both wealth and life expectancy. The idea of a person retiring at 65 and living a few more years primarily on a state pension has largely disappeared. Some people can spend more time retired than they ever spend working

Different Reactions to Retirement

Psychologists have long been interested in the experience of loss. The argument is that loss has profound effects that take time adjusting to. For example, the loss of a parent or friend through death; loss of a relationship through divorce; loss of friends and familiarity through migration; and loss of a job through compulsory retirement.

The dying and the grieving have to learn to let go. And so do people whose job has been the centre of their lives and their identity.

Studies of those suffering loss and adjustment have noticed that people appear to pass through various phases or stages in their adjustment. Of course the academics quibble about how many there are; what they are called; if everyone has to go through them sequentially; what makes one move on from one stage to the next.

But they do represent a way to monitor progress. They help observers predict what will happen to those they know trying to cope. They can even encourage observers to help people onto the next stage:

Denial: It seems the ‘It can’t happen to me’ response is universal. The grim reaper and the four riders of the apocalypse. Denial is primitive and widespread. You hear it all the time in recessions. We are OK. They can’t/won’t do it to us. It’s just a rumour.

Anxiety: Denial is soon replaced by fear. Fear of the unknown; fear of being unable to cope with less; fear of boredom; fear of re-inventing oneself. Anxiety is manifest in moodiness and sickness; in gossip and rumour.

Anger: Always a difficult emotion for the dying and the grieving; common and expected in divorce; well known in the workplace.  It’s not difficult to find targets who become as the psychoanalysts say “bad objects”. It’s easier to express in groups. It mobilises people.

Sadness: And when the anger has dissipated and exhausted people, the black dog appears. It’s about looking back to that which has been lost and may never again happen. People go quiet, become introspective, become rather solitary.

Acceptance: Anxiety, anger and depression are an exhausting trilogy. But once the corner is turned, reality and realism kick in. Fait accompli; que sera sera; it is written. Better accept the fact; adjust to the situation.

Relief: For some, redundancy from tedious, high demand and low control jobs can be a relief. Jump off the treadmill, the grind, the remorselessness of the tyranny of the urgent and life can be rather fun. The ‘package’ may not be too bad.

Interest: There are several alternatives on offer to the let-go worker. Find another (any other) job; do voluntary work; do retirement. The frenetic, worried job seeker is often worse off, particularly in times of recession, but for the others life can be a lot more interesting. Old passions can be taken up again.

Adaptation: Crises afford opportunities as much as threats. Lay off does not mean life off.  It can mean precisely the opposite. Some people adapt quickly and well.

Enjoyment: Many retired people say they find it difficult to imagine how they ever found time for work.  Their days are full, structured, eventful, and even fun. They can feel that being let go means they have been allowed to let go the hum-drum, the tedious and even the demeaning.

There are all sorts of retirement situations: “traditional”, “mini”, “semi-” etc.

For the economist, retirement means a time of adult life where one is not working for money. For the psychologist retirement means a state of mind where people think of themselves as retired. For the sociologist it is a time where a person has left a career and occupies a social niche in which it is acceptable to be without work.

Many papers on reactions to retirement have made distinctions between a more positive and a more negative reaction. The pull-push distinction is often made.

For instance, Schultz, Morton and Weckerle (1998) listed various push factors before retirement (poor health, family health, disliked work, disliked boss, could not find work, not appreciated and employee policies) while the pull factors were: do other things, no need to work and spouse retired.

They also noted positive/pull factors after work (be your own boss, lack of pressure, wanted to relax, time with spouse, time with kids, pursue hobbies, volunteer work, and travel). On the other hand, negative/push factors were boredom, not feeling useful, missing co-workers, illness/disability, not enough money and inflation.

The concept of retirement has changed significantly. The old image of retirement of pipe and slippers, light gardening and the grandchildren has long gone. It was more one of the fading light, perhaps accompanied by illness. Now the media is full of images of attractive and healthy 70 plusses enjoying life to the full.

They appear not to miss work at all and are reaping the rewards of a successful working life. Seventy is the old 40. Old age has been abolished. Retirement is a round of cruises, golf-matches and foreign holidays.

The government is also putting up the retirement age relentlessly as we live longer. Some claim we will have to wait to 75 before we get a pension in 20 years

Inevitably there are winners and losers in all this. The planful middle classes who have saved and invested and have an active alternative life thrive, while the those who have few savings or skills face a rather bleak future. Perhaps twas ever thus.

To end on a personal note. I have said publicly many times that I plan never to retire….and the legislation has made it more difficult for employers to get rid of me.

I don’t want to retire because I love what I do. I have never considered it a job, but a paid hobby. And as a result I have few other hobbies or pastimes apart from the reading, scribbling and teaching that is all part of the job.

A colleague forced to retire 20 years ago bought a flat opposite his office where he took and paid for staff and continued as if nothing had changed. He became more productive than ever.

Keep doing what you love doing, keep fit and active and embrace new things; the secret of a happy life, not just that old fashioned concept called retirement.

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