SUCCESSFUL RETIREMENT – RESEARCH FINDINGS, REFLECTIONS AND RECOMMENDATIONS
The goal for this website is to get you informed and involved in planning and implementing some steps for this stage of life. Retirement is an infusion of huge quantities of time for exploring all the things you squeeze into life now. Retirement is an opportunity to figure out, plan and do what you want to do, living life fully without regret. The point is you’re never too young to think about retirement, and never too old to make it better.
This section summarizes some of the scholarly literature about retirement, particularly, the findings related to success and happiness, and the findings from 100 retirees who participated in interviews, focus groups and classes.
The bulk of research relating to successful retirement deals with financial issues and ignores the psychological and social aspects of retirement. Because of this lack of information on websites and other scholarly sources, what this section (and the website in general) does is provide insights from the research literature and retirees’ histories regarding the personal and social factors that aid and hinder retirees in their quest for a purposeful, happy retirement. The information and discussion are based on the assumption that you have created or are creating the financial resources that are necessary (but not sufficient) for a successful retirement.
From the studies that do address factors associated with quality of life in retirement and my research, the primary findings associated with retirement adjustment and happiness include:
- Having a sense of control over the decision to retire improves the retirement experience;
- Social networks, planning, goal-directedness, taking steps to implement some projects and involvements before retiring, and having a sense of purpose – in addition to material resources – increase the likelihood of successful retirement, including better health;
- Retirement can affect men and women differently;
- Retirement can create stress for a couple; and
- Retirees who are single, “Going Solo” have a unique set of issues
To further investigate “successful retirement,” I interviewed (one-two hours long) and conducted focus groups and classes with members of the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute (OLLI) at the University of California, Santa Cruz (UCSC) and interviewed individuals who retired from technology (e.g. Google) in Silicon Valley.
Interview Questions: Each person was recorded as they responded to the following open-ended questions:
- What were you doing before your retired?
- Why did you retire? Was it planned?
- Do you consider your retirement successful or not? Are you happy in retirement?
- What have you gained? What has gotten better? What have you lost? What has gotten worse?
- How has retirement affected your relationship(s)?
- What would you recommend for others?
As of September 2017, 100 people have been surveyed, 48 were interviewed and 52 participated in one of three Focus Groups or the Retirement Class. There were 48 males and 52 females from a wide range of pre-retirement professions: e.g., film editor, engineers, computer scientists, university professors/educators (e.g., music, psychology), clinical psychologists, medical doctor, nurses, teachers, pilot, private business owners, bus driver, real estate agent. The youngest person was 47 and the oldest 95. The time in retirement ranged from three months to over 30 years.
This sample is biased towards highly educated, above-average income retirees living in a beautiful university town or in Silicon Valley and is not representative of all retirees.
RESEARCH FINDINGS AND DISCUSSION
Research Findings and Related Insights from the Retirees
Information from the respondents will be used throughout the discussion to illustrate the research; in particular, Cindy, Brian, Arthur and Leslie (below) are highlighted.
Cindy is in her 70s and retired over 12 years ago from her position as a university professor and administrator at San Jose State University. She is actively involved in volunteer positions with children. Additionally she is on the Board of UCSC’s Osher Life Long Learners and runs the photography interest group. Cindy spends time traveling with friends as well as significant time with her daughter and granddaughter. She also loves having time to be at home with her husband and dog and feels very happy and fulfilled.
Brian – is in his late 50s and retired three years ago from his successful and rewarding career at Hewlett Packard as a software engineer when he was offered an early retirement package. The thought of turning 55 and being able to do something different appealed to him. He’d seen a lot of change over his 32 years working and wasn’t having as much fun. Brian is doing all kinds of different things in retirement such as taking art classes at the university and mentoring an 11 year old boy. Brian is originally from England, travels a lot, visits his children and grandchildren in the Netherlands and sometimes works, helping out friends in their tech companies. Brian is loving retirement and his wife says he is the “Poster Child for Retirement.”
Arthur, at least temporarily “retired” a year and a half ago at age 47 after working at Google for almost 12 years. He thinks Google is an amazing place to work and loves his field of software engineering. Among his many contributions, he helped develop SMS (texting). Arthur heard many people say, “If you have the chance, be with your family, especially when your children are young.” Arthur took that chance, as well as the chance to have time to do something else, totally his own way. He is home with his wife and two year old daughter, is fully engaged in his computer science projects and is not sure if he would call himself “retired.” He knows that he will stay home until his daughter enters kindergarten and then is not sure whether he will go back to work or what he will do. Arthur feels blessed everyday.
Leslie, is in her 60s and retired four years ago from her Director of Mental Health position in California. In addition to retiring, she also had to deal with the sudden and unexpected deaths of her husband and dog and consequently living alone. Leslie says that “her life has hit a rhythm that seems to make sense – part-time work on a state project, teaching meditation, spending time with friends, running a couple of mentoring groups, reading and hanging out in cafes. I know this is a transition time but I don’t feel in so much of a hurry to “finish” figuring anything out about defining this time, … it’s a process.”
When thinking about “successful retirement,” most people and the research literature consider having enough money and looking forward to enjoying free time without much thought to what retirement will actually look like — how to spend one’s time, what activities will be engaged in that are rewarding and meaningful, and what is necessary to create a retirement that meets the needs for pleasant associations, purpose and living without regret.
Until recently, many thought of 65 as the age of retirement. Sixty-five was the age legislated by the Social Security Act of 1935 as a time when individuals could start collecting “an old age benefit” (www.ssa.gov/history/35act.html). In 1935, life expectancy was 61. Currently, the average life expectancy is in the 80s. (www.SSA.gov/planners/life expectancy). Life in retirement has the potential to be over 20 years.
Having a successful retirement is likely the stated or unstated goal of most retirees and working people. However, retirement is a privilege only some will attain. It is a stage of life (Horner, 2011) where one can arrive having earned and learned invaluable resources along the way. Goals change across the life span. With age, although memories might not be what they used to be, research supports that emotional stability has improved, knowledge has grown and expertise deepened (Carstensen, 2014; 2006). In important ways, older people can contribute more than younger people.
The research literature does find that for most retirees, life in retirement is better or the same as it was before (Carstensen, 2014, 2006; Blendon, SteelFisher, Mailhot, Ben-Porath, Mann, Hare, Sullivan and Colby. 2011; NPR, 2011). More specifically, the research finds that retirement can start with a great honeymoon phase, then there is a steep decline in happiness, then stabilizes (Horner, 2012) to at least as happy as one’s working time. There is an initial decline in satisfaction for those who retired earlier than expected (Hershey & Henkens, 2013). Depending on the survey, up to 25% continue to experience difficulty adjusting (van Solinge, 2013, p319). This is true regardless of the age the person retires.
What is Retirement?
The literature tends to define and discuss retirement as a discrete point in time (Blendon, 2011; Kubicek et al., 2011). A clear point when the person stops working. That was true and typical of how retirement was historically but is no longer the case. For many, the boundary between work and retirement has become unclear. Retirement is now an evolving process and for many, it takes the form of being self-employed or working for someone else, for purpose or to give back rather than accumulate more wealth. (Freedman, 2011; Brown et al. 2010; Lawrence-Lightfoot, 2009)
Working in retirement used to be an oxymoron and is now becoming the new normal (Brown, Aumann, Pitt-Catsouphes, Galinsky & Bond, 2010)
According to employment statistics, the older workforce is growing more rapidly than the younger workforce (Drake, 2014) including an aging of the Science and Engineering labor force (Science and Engineering Indicators 2014, Labor Force Data). Fifty-five and older is the only age group where workforce participation rates have been rising which is in contrast to past decades of decline (Cahill, Giandrea & Quinn, 2013). The Sloan Center on Aging and Work at Boston College (Brown et al., 2010), reports that in the general population, one in five workers aged 50 and older has a retirement job; the mean age of those working in retirement is 63.
For those in the Science and Engineering sector, in spite of the perceived and actual pressure for older workers to retire (Brooke, 2009) there is a rising median age. In 2010, the median age of scientists and engineers in the labor force was 44 years compared to 41 in 1993. In 2010, one in three science and engineering workers were over 50 compared to one in five in 1993.
Both Brian and Arthur supported the research finding (Brooke, 2009) that there can be pressure for older computer scientists to go into management or retire because of the assumption that older engineers’ minds aren’t as quick as younger ones. However, they, as well as Brooke’s research, suggest that the real issue with age is that one’s priorities change. People may no longer be willing to work the intense hours they once did. Brian and Arthur both expressed that it hasn’t been hard to keep up their tech skills and knowledge, since it is what is important to them and what they are interested in.
Sense of Control: The Decision of When and How to Retire
Having a sense of control over the decision to retire (Calvo, Haverstick & Sass, 2009: Wolinsky, 2003), including how and when to retire, can affect the person’s ability to plan, and is correlated with higher levels of self-efficacy, mental well-being and how well people take care of their health (Novak, 2011; Wolinsky, 2003) as well as higher levels of income (Calvo, 2009). One word about finances in terms of sense of control: many responders supported the research finding that having a pension helped them make the decision, and has helped them feel more in control of their lives and more secure and happy with being retired (Belendon, et al., 2011; Calvo, Haverstick & Sass, 2009). Forced retirement, on the other hand, is a predictor of adjustment problems and can have negative effects on the retired worker and their spouse or partner (van Solinger, 2005).
Some of the literature supports the finding that transitioning into retirement with bridge employment is associated with better physical and mental health in comparison with full retirement (Kubicek, et all, 2011).
Overall, the literature is consistent in the finding that what matters most is whether the person perceives the retirement decision as chosen or forced (Calvo, Haverstick and Sass, 2009).
Perceived control increases with education, wealth and socio economic status (Calvo & Sarkisian, April 2011). Advantaged individuals accumulate more opportunites for controlling their transitions through life (Mirowsky & Ross, 2007).
Planning and Goal-Directedness
Another consistent research finding is that retirement tends to be easier for people who are goal-oriented and therefore able to plan what to do once they have retired (Kubicek,et al. 2011). Planning is correlated with higher retirement satisfaction and better adjustment (Kubicek, et al. 2011; Taylor & Doverspike, 2003). However, according to current social security information, future retirees do not plan for the decision very long (Knoll, 2011). According to the 2008 Employee Benefit Research Institute report (EBRI), 22 percent of survey respondents first began to think about the retirement decision six months before they left their jobs. Another 22% spent only a year thinking about the retirement decision.
Arthur told two stories that he said made him realize he had to carefully plan if he was going to retire.
The first story involved his wife who was in a book group with a woman who turned 103 years old and had retired at age 50. That 103 year old told her book group, before you retire, make sure you know what you are going to do. Don’t just jump off a cliff so to speak and try to figure it out after you’ve left. It doesn’t mean that what you are going to do is what you planned to do, but have a plan or it can be very disorienting not to have one. Arthur took her advice and started thinking about retirement many years before he retired.
The second story involved a friend of Arthur’s who had started five different start-ups; one did well and he was able to retire quite early. The friend came to Google to give a presentation. In the middle of his talk, he went off topic and started talking about retirement. He said, “You know those projects you always want to work on and think work is getting in the way. You are likely to find that if you stop working, you won’t get them done, it’s really you.” Though cynical, Arthur knew there was some truth in the warning and put the conditions in place to work on his own projects before he retired.
Many like Arthur are remarkably bright, self-directed, focused and self-driven and will make excellent decisions and plans. The research supports that people like Arthur will use the same approach of dealing with the “problem situation” of retirement that they used with other problems to be solved in their careers (Martin and Lee, 2015).
However, the literature on behavioral economics finds that people are not good at accurately predicting their future happiness and behavior, which can lead to suboptimal retirement decisions (Knoll 2011). Here are a few of the pitfalls to watch out for.
Individuals experience loss aversion (Tversky & Kahneman, 1974). Put simply, losses hurt more than gains feel good. Applying this to retirement, individuals’ potential to earn more may not be enough to compensate for their reluctance to work longer and they might retire prematurely, before their optimal financial and psychological time.
Additionally, individuals experience impact bias (Wilson & Gilbert, 2003) which is the tendency to overestimate the intensity and duration of their emotions in reaction to positive and negative future events. Individuals may choose to retire early because they think working longer will be worse than it is and life in retirement will be better than it is (Knoll, 2011).
In other words, although individuals can “pre-experience” future events through mental simulations (Gilbert and Wilson 2007), their prospections are often inaccurate and can lead to a mismatch between mental simulations and actual experiences (Gilbert and Wilson 2007).
Here’s why. Gilbert and Wilson argue that —
- Mental simulations are unrepresentative as they are from memories of past events and individuals remember most clearly the best and worst aspects of an event, as well as the final moments of it. Additionally, because of a negativity bias, individuals are more sensitive to negative events than to positive events (Rozin and Royzman, 2001).
- Mental simulations are essentialized. They contain the main features of an event, not minor details. When thinking about retirement, people will imagine and focus on the larger issue of leisure time without the smaller details such as how to spend the time or whether their friends will be retired and available.
- Mental simulations are abbreviated and decontextualized, meaning they are shorter than the actual event and are in a different context. People imagine the beginning of retirement when it can feel like a long weekend and not later when there might be the potential of boredom, lack of purpose or loneliness.
- Lastly, people tend to be hyperbolic discounters meaning that they tend to put too much weight on the rewards they can receive immediately (Knoll, 2011). Initially, the promise of a large reward in the future will get chosen over a smaller reward in the present. However, as the large reward gets closer to the present, individuals preferences tend to reverse; people become more impulsive and will prefer the sooner, smaller reward (Knoll, 2011). The median expected age of retirement is 65 while the median actual age is 62. Indeed, results from the EBRI Retirement Confidence Survey (Helman Greenwald, Copeland & VanDerhei, 2010) indicate 41% of people retire earlier than expected (only 5% later). The majority of workers, up to 72%, in the Retirement Confidence Survey indicated that they plan to work after age 65; while only 27% actually do (Helman et al. 2010).
Perhaps some of the mismatch in expectation vs. reality can be explained by research in neuropsychology. People think getting a reward will make them feel good. That’s not necessarily true. It’s the anticipation of the reward that raises dopamine levels, a feel good chemical (Sapolsky, 2017, 2011, 2006). Thinking about going to a party, completing a project or retiring may bring more pleasure than the actual event.
The main point to take away is to start planning for retirement when it is years in the future, and you can focus on critical aspects with more data, and more rational and clear thinking.
In addition to being goal oriented and able to plan, some other consistent predictors of well being include: flexibility in goal adjustment and tenacity in goal pursuit as well as the ability to deal with failure/loss (Kubicek, et al. 2011). Elliot Aronson, Ph.D. is one of the most eminent social psychologists, known especially for his work on cognitive dissonance. Elliot talked about what he did when he learned he was going blind. He got trained to walk with a white cane, trained to live with and work with a service dog, made his computer able to read text to him and moved to downtown Santa Cruz with his wife so that he could walk everywhere. Elliot is able to continue doing his research as well as stay in touch with his colleagues. After many years of giving up teaching because he could no longer see his students, at age 81, Elliot started again teaching a Social Influence course. He made the transition into teaching by first teaching with another professor (he taught with me) and then resumed teaching by himself.
One participant, Paul, who was a retired engineer, made a comment which reflected the thoughts of many, that he planned for retirement and “work was a nice apprenticeship for going on to this next stage. My productive life was not over.” Paul loves learning piano and giving presentations in his OLLI philosophy and social science interest groups. His sentiments support the research finding that being interested in gaining self-knowledge is correlated with being less likely to engage in post-retirement employment (Fasbender, Deller, Wang & Wiernik, 2014). Paul, Brian and Arthur all wanted the chance to do some different things and do them their own way.
Other responders reflected the literature that pre-retirees may underestimate the challenges of retirement (Blendon et al., 2011) and wished they had planned more (Moen, Erickson, Agarwal, Fields & Todd, 2000). They expressed that even with goal-setting, “graduation” to this new stage in life, can come too early and quickly, and can be quite the difficult transition, especially for people who were forced to leave their employment for reasons such as health or projects ending.
Staying Connected to social networks and the internet
Having social networks (Kubicek et al., 2011) “Staying Connected” — including social connectedness (Kubicek et al, 2011) as well as internet connectedness (Novak, 2011; Cardale & Brady, 2010) — are vital at any time in life and definitely in retirement. Carstensen’s socioemotional selectivity theory posits that older adults shift priorities to stronger, emotionally rewarding ties vs cultivating new relationships; And that one’s perspective and sense of time changes to how much time one has left (Carstensen 2014, 2006). “Spending time with other adults enhances older adults capabilities, life satisfaction, general well-being, health” (Sayer, Feldman & Bianchi, 2016, p217) and sense of mattering (Froidevaux, Hirschi & Wang, 2016). Perceptions of positive social relationships are associated with greater involvement in leisure activities; and greater involvement in leisure activities is correlated with better health in old age (Chang et al, 2014). Those with higher education, have more leisure and enjoy it more. “Innovators” who start new activities have an even higher rate of satisfaction (Dorfman, 2013).
This is a time in life when people can experience many losses. The retirees world can shrink like Dr. Aaronson’s– from ending work, declining health, death of loved ones including pets, and moves (Novak, 2011; Cornwell, Laumann & Schumm, 2008). Consequently, social robotics including robotic pets is a growing field (Klinenberg, 2012).
Brian, Arthur and others who “left” tech, talked about the potential losses from a “tech bubble” – tech tends to protect its secrets and excludes workers who leave from information and getting together. This is unlike academia and other professions which encourage professors to come back and work with colleagues.
Communication online can also help. One report by economists (at the Phoenix Center for Advanced Legal and Economic Policy Studies) finds that older people using the internet experienced a 20% reduction in depression (Klinenberg, 2012). Older people tend to use the internet to disseminate information, meet people and strengthen ties (Xie, Huang & Watkins, 2013). Therefore, having and being open to others and staying connected to others in person when possible, or by email or video chats are especially important at this stage (Chang, Wray & Lin, 2014; Novak, 2011).
Sense of Purpose
The role of mattering (Froidevaux &Wang, 2016) and having a sense of purpose (Strecher, 2016) have important roles for physical health and well-being in retirement (Kim, Hershner, & Strecher, 2015; Windsor, Curtis & Luszcz, 2015; Kim, Sun, Park & Peterson, 2013; Seligman 2011). The research on purpose in life finds that lack of purpose contributes at least as much to disease and death as do lifestyle factors such as tobacco use, poor diet, inactivity, and stress (Strecher, 2016, p13). With strong purpose in life, individuals seem to do better psychologically, socially, sleeping, sexually, are less likely to become depressed, and are more relaxed (Strecher, 2016; Kim, Hershner & Strecher, 2015; Hill & Turiano, 2014; Hamblin, 2014; Kim et. al2013; Kim, et al., 2013). A strong sense of ikigai, a joy and sense of well-being from being alive and realizing the value of being alive, is associated with a lower risk of incident functional disability (Kentaro, Yu, Yasutake, Mamoru, Fumiya, Kemmyo, Yumi & Ichiro, 2017; Sone, Nakaya, Ohmori, Shimazu, Higashiguchi, Kakizaki, Kikuchi, Kuriyama, and Tsuji, 2008). Elizabeth Blackburn, the 2009 Nobel Prize winner in medicine and her colleagues found that having a purpose in life was associated with telomere (the ends of chromosomes) length and therefore better health and less risk of dying (Blackburn & Epel, 2017; Strecher, 2016).
Purpose in life can give direction and intentionality toward goal directed behavior which can affect one’s personal objectives for living and influence daily decisions regarding the use of one’s resources (Irving, Davis and Collier, 2017, p 2); In other words, purpose can foster “efficiency of action (Irving et al, 2017 p 27). ” Individuals with a high sense of purpose may adapt more effectively through changing environmental and life conditions (Hill, Turiano, Spiro & Mroczek, 2015).
“Purpose can be derived from relationships, societal, work or familial roles, pursuit of personal goals, maintaining independence, generativity, community engagement, or participation in activities that are individually meaningful and relevant (Irving et al, 2017, p 2). “
However, the literature shows that purpose declines with age (Irving et al. 2017; Pinquart, 2002). The literature suggests that age is not the significant factor, but rather age-related losses (eg. death of partner, retirement) and decreased opportunities for meaningful engagement (Irving et al. 2017).
Leslie has successfully shifted her purpose since retiring to supporting/mentoring the younger generation and people who are helping other people. For example, she teaches mindfulness to the staff at the homeless center instead of working directly with people who are homeless. She believes that when one’s gifts meet the needs of the world, joy is felt. Leslie intuitively tunes in to what brings her joy. When she has “messed up” and taken on too much, she self-corrects.
Some differences between men and women
In some aspects, retirement affects men and women differently (Kubicek, et al., 2011). For women, there is a negative effect of a lifetime of household and caretaking, on planning for retirement, earnings, and retirement income (Sayer, Freedman & Bianchi, 2016). Consequently, economic insecurity in old age is particularly acute among single, divorced and widowed women even though women tend to retire later than men (Sayer et al., 2016). Research suggests that males report higher levels of purpose than females (Irving et al, 2015; Pinquart, 2002).
For many women, retirement isn’t as satisfactory as it is for their male partners/spouse because retirement may not relieve the burdens of family life as they continue to do the household and caretaking work for their spouse/partner/elderly parents/adult children/grandchildren (Sayer et al., 2016; Suitor, Gilligan & Pillemer, 2016; Wink & James, 2013; Coursolle, Sweeney, Rayno & Ho, 2010). Work may have been the women’s source of emotional support and limited the amount of time they could spend dealing with family responsibilities and conflicts (Courselle et.al., 2010). Some research finds that women enjoy being grandmothers more when they worked than in retirement (Calvo, Haverstick & Sass, 2009). Caring for a spouse has a significant impact on the time of retiring; a woman with an ill husband is five times more likely to retire; a man with a sick wife is 50% slower to retire (Griffin, Loh & Hesketh, 2013)
For men, leaving a job that was very satisfactory, is associated with more difficult retirement adjustments than for women (Kubicek et al., 2011). After retirement, men are generally not as good as women at substituting the social involvements they had when they were working (Kubicek et al., 2011). Men can end up feeling like they do not have enough friends.
Thus, once retired, women tend to do more housework, volunteer more than men and spend more time with others, while men are more likely to have bridge employment and leisure activities (Griffin et al. 2013).
Some unique issues for Gay, Lesbian and Bisexual (GLB) boomers
Given that most gay men and lesbians of this age grew up with having to deal with some form of “stigma” associated with being gay, many GLB (Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual) boomers say this has helped to better prepare them for age discrimination; gay elders have learned a “crisis competence” ( MetLife Study, 2010; Cohler and Hostetler, 2006). However, 27% of GLB boomers express great concern about discrimination as they age, particularly from healthcare professionals (MetLife 2010). Additionally, because of concerns and actual experiences of rejection, more than three-quarters of GLB boomers have created important connections and communities with “families of choice” – close friends who are “family.” These “families of choice” have helped prepare gay people for retirement age when social support can be especially important. Long term engagement in the community also serves to help with losses and a sense of purpose.
Gay people provide caregiving to others more than the population in general (Metlife, 2010; Cohler and Hostetler, 2006). One in four gay people say they are providing care for another person, whereas only one in five adults in the general U.S. population report being a caregiver. In the gay community, both men and women provide a full range of care in equal amounts of time. In the general nongay population, 61% of caregiving is given by women (MetLife 2010); and men and women offer different kinds of care. Gay caregivers report providing more hours of care per week than nongay caregivers. Forty-two percen of GLB caregivers in the MetLife study also report assisting people outside of their families of origin, eg partners, friends, neighbors.
In terms of couples’ issues, Google’s past CFO Patrick Pichette expressed it best upon giving his leaving notice, when he said “Tamar and I will be celebrating our 25th anniversary. When our kids are asked by their friends about the success of the longevity of our marriage, they simply joke that Tamar and I have spent so little time together that it’s really too early to tell if our marriage will in fact succeed (Interview with Larry Page, March 10, 2015).”
The transition to retirement can be difficult for couples (Coursolle, et al 2010; Calvo, Haverstick & Sass, 2009; Solinge & Henkens, 2005; Moen, et al. 2000). The early transition period is associated with conflict and declines in marital quality (Moen, et al., 2000). Although married retirees (gay or nongay) usually have better psychological well-being than single or widowed retirees (Wang & Shi 2014; MetLife2010), this beneficial effect disappears if one of the spouses is still working with the most dissatisfied couple situation being when the wife is still working and the husband has retired (Griffin et al., 2013). After the adjustment period, being married and retired with some joint leisure activities, correlates with happiness (Calvo, Haverstick & Sass, 2009). Interestingly, although over ¾ partners expect to engage in more activities together, less than ½ do (Matthews & Fisher, 2013, p362).
Having both people at home all the time created problems for some couples. Many people, especially women, expressed what the research found (van Solinge & Henkens, 2005): space/togetherness can be an issue and wives tend to encourage their husbands/male partners to get involved with something meaningful outside of the house. These women felt like their home environment changed in a way that curtailed some of their freedoms. For example, when I was announcing my research project to recruit subjects, one woman came up to me and told me about her sister-in-law who was having problems with her husband who retired because there was now the expectation that she and her husband would have more time together including having lunch together and the wife would prepare the lunch. When she walked away, one man, a retired engineer came up to me and said, “Jill, my wife is an artist, works in our home and will never be able to retire. I think one of the reasons my wife and I are dealing so well with both of us being home is that I like to go out for lunch by myself. You know we got married for better or worse, but not for lunch.” Among non-employed women at least 65, living with a spouse increases household and carework by one hour/day with most of the time spent cooking and cleaning (Sayer et al, 2016).
In contrast, living alone is a growing phenomenon (Klinenberg, 2012). Currently, 28% of all US households are made up of people living alone which is more common than the nuclear family (Klinenberg, 2012, p3). A greater proportion of individuals reaching retirement are unmarried. One in three Baby Boomers is unmarried and lives alone. (Klinenberg, 2012, p157, p16).
Even though being unmarried makes one more vulnerable to social isolation, loneliness, health problems and being economically disadvantaged, those living alone are healthier than those living with adults other than a spouse, or even, in some cases, than those living with a spouse (Klinenberg, 2012, p17). In recent decades older people have demonstrated a clear preference for living alone rather than moving in with family or friends, having “intimacy at a distance.” (Klinenberg, 2012, p162). Today, only 20% of elderly widows live with a child vs. up to 70% in the past (Klinenberg, 2012, p162). In terms of coupling, one woman expressed the research that “she’s more interested in having someone to go out with than someone to come home to (Klinenberg, 2012,p163).” People who live alone become more socially active and involved in their community (Klinenberg, 2012, p163).
Donna, Leslie and Bill said it well:
Donna, a retired university teacher, said “I wasn’t planning or wanting to go solo. I didn’t choose it or embrace it, but I did accept it and grow into it. Since I’ve always lived with people, I found, (once I got comfortable), a real sense of peace and gratitude. To have the space and place called home, to make all choices my choices, with the most basic of things: what/when to eat, arrange flowers, turn up (or down!) the music. These were the good, welcomed and even kind of fun areas of personal freedom, never previously experienced. And maybe, since towards the end of my marriage, with an ongoing coolness and quiet tension…it felt good to be solo. Cleaner.
The less attractive side: every decision is mine and not shared with a different prespective or support. Sometimes that feels a bit burdensome.
I do hope to be back in an intimate relationship. Until that time, I have romance, like a seasoning, (maybe curry!)…here and there, now and then. It has always been nice and something to appreciate.”
Leslie said – “After my husband’s death I’d let friends become a stronger part of my life, sharing in my vulnerable moments and my rough edges in ways I’d previously saved for my life partner.”
Bill, a retired physician, said that since his wife died three years ago, he experiences so much loneliness.
RECOMMENDATIONS: FROM THEORY TO REALITY
This section will focus on how to best apply this theoretical research information to your situation so that you can create a successful retirement or possibly change the one you are living.
Most retirees, especially women, wish they had planned ahead more for retirement (Moen, 2000). On the other hand, Cindy took 10 years to plan for her retirement including she changed her position at the university to have less responsibility and more time. She started taking classes at the university, and started volunteer work so that she would have something meaningful with some structure to do as soon as she retired.
Brian said that while he was working very long focused hours, he didn’t have much time to think about things not tech related, to step back and expand his mind. Being one of the first of his group to retire, he knew that he wouldn’t have friends around to do things with so he would have to intentionally do things to make friends. He knew that without work, he could get to some of the projects he had neglected, but would also need some structure and meaning. He got involved in his art classes and mentoring before he left his job. Upon retiring, he decided to limit the amount of time he would spend on the compute and had something on the calendar to help avoid the potential dip of facing a blank week.
Arthur thought about retiring for years, and started planning for it two years before he retired. He wrote down 3 things — What projects he wanted to work on –What his goals were — and –What he wanted a typical day to be like. He knew that making it concrete would be helpful. He knew that it is easy to become disappointed if one has big goals and doesn’t achieve them right away. Arthur said that creating a routine helps. He doesn’t always follow the routine, but is guided by it. His biggest fear of leaving Google was that he would lose the companionship, would be isolated from other tech people, especially tech people who like talking tech and wouldn’t be fulfilled in this area. Instead, he has worked very hard to maintain his friendships. And, as for the tech bubble, although some things are different, it hasn’t been a problem for him. He said that Open Source has been a big boon for the industry and for someone like himself, he can contribute things, and be in a different bubble.
For those who don’t plan ahead, their efforts may be hit and miss.
Using One’s Time
Working on how to spend the day can be an ongoing issue. The research says that people need strategies like Arthur, Cindy, Brian and Leslie implemented to support achieving their goals as well as strategies to cope with failure of not achieving goals. (Kubicek, 2011; Schale & Willis, 2010).
Taking the time to think and the skills to reflect are significant and necessary. Most responders emphasized the importance of being open to people and opportunities. Finding satisfaction may require being especially open to short-term opportunities like taking a class or a time limited job or a one time volunteer experience to check out the organization to see if you would want to do more with them.
Leslie recommended taking on retiring as “A Project.” Observe and learn from other retired people. “Research” retirement by asking people you know who are retired, what has worked for them and what hasn’t worked for them.
Some responders like Leslie, who have had to deal with major losses and have worked hard to enjoy their life, recommended figuring out what “elements” one wants to have in a day. Leslie plans her day by including the following elements: physical activity, social connection, meditation, creativity (e.g., writing, cooking, going to a music event), and service to others. For example, Leslie uses her mental health and meditation backgrounds to teach meditation to diverse populations such as prisoners, elderly living in assisted living, and lawyers. Leslie, along with most of the responders, supported the research findings that exercise is important (Simone & Haas, 2009).
Whatever you plan, many responders reinforced the idea of being flexible and open to change, including being flexible about when to retire. Some people carefully planned their retirement with their partner/spouse. Sadly, in some cases like Leslie’s, their spouse died before either person was able to retire. In that situation, responders recommended postponing retirement, so that one doesn’t have to deal with too many transitions/losses at the same time.
Other responders were not as satisfied because they had not developed the self-awareness skills necessary to figure out what they wanted to do to give them a sense of purpose with their newly created available time.
Others made their lives too busy, for example by joining too many Boards and taking care of others too much, and had to figure out what was important and how to limit their commitments. One woman said “I flunked retirement. Without fallow time, I worked too much, than retired too much. I’m sorry I didn’t take the time to figure out my new identity.”
Many responders suggested taking on one main interest and giving it enough time to try it out, instead of assuming too many obligations at once. The interest can be from experiences one has before retiring, be it from one’s career like Elliot’s in psychology or Arthur’s in Computer Science – or – from outside of one’s work like Eric. Eric earned his degree in Art and Architecture at MIT and ended up spending his career working in early childhood education. Upon retiring, he is using both of his interests, designing and making wooden toys for all ages and writing children’s books. Paula and Jim Faris, both in their 90s, met at MGM in Hollywood working on Tom and Jerry Cartoons. After retiring from a career as a film editor, Jim, along with four others, started UCSC’s OLLI 30 years ago when he and Paula first retired and moved to Santa Cruz. Additionally, Jim and Paula started and kept up the Film Group they ran in their home for over 25 years until one week before Jim died this past year. Maurice and Rachel Enzer are French and live in Paris. By age 91, Maurice completed nine books, was working on another one, and only started writing after he retired from his work as an engineer. Rachel retired after a 40 year career as a psychologist and became an art student at the Louvre. One retired pilot returned to his childhood passion and is cycling with his new wife touring the world.
The literature says volunteering can be especially beneficial at this stage (Moen et al., 2000), and is cited as one of the things that make people happy (Cornwell, Laumann & Schumm, 2008). However, finding volunteer work that is fulfilling isn’t always easy. There may be a lot of volunteer opportunities, but not necessarily at the level of responsibility the person is used to. The literature finds that when volunteering, women tend to assume the role of helping and men assume administrative roles (Dorfman, 2013). People with more social capitol are the ones most likely to volunteer. Responders like Cindy, whose passion is with children said that the most successful volunteer opportunities were found by networking. The literature on managers says that they find mentoring deeply satisfying, especially those situations with more long-term ongoing relationships (Martin and Lee, 2015). Further, retirees involved for generative reasons, working for teaching and sharing knowledge with the younger generation, experience improved psychological well-being (Wang & Shi 2014).
Dusty is finding much joy with her husband Craig traveling on their own and leading group trips for UCSC’s Life Long Learners, a need for many retirees who have the resources and time to finally travel but no one to travel with. Craig retired from his first career working for the government when he was 54 and immediately started working full-time in his own business, his second career, the one he always dreamed about in Real Estate. Only now in his 70s, did he “really” retire. Craig, candidly said, “Now that I’m retired, I hope I don’t die early.”
Others, who said they “figured out” how to enjoy retirement, are now realizing that they are “missing something” and are having to once again determine what they want to do that is meaningful and fulfilling. One female retired professor and a male retired CEO both expressed how “the first year long weekend was great, but now what?” They and others illustrate Horner’s research findings that retirement can start great with a honeymoon phase, then happiness has a steep decline, then stabilizes (Horner, 2012).
Most participants made a point of saying how much they liked and valued Santa Cruz as a great place for retirement which supports the research that one’s environment is important for a successful retirement (Blendon et al., Sept 2011). How older people feel about their neighborhood is important for positive mental health; neighborhood SES has a strong and consistent relationship with a range of health outcomes for older people (Aneshensel, Harig and Wight, 2016, pp 323, 321) Environments that allow older people to walk, for fun, exercise or to go to particular destinations, contribute to greater physical activity and lower rates of overweight, depression and alcohol abuse (Aneshensel et al, 2016, p 326)
Santa Cruz has safe and beautiful places to walk, by the ocean, or to cafes, bookstores, food stores, etc. Many love the ocean and the chance to do things like go kayaking (as I am doing in the photo with my dog Herbie whom I was finally able to get because I retired). Santa Cruz offers opportunities to get involved in the community and give back.
Additionally, most of my responders emphasized the significance of OLLI at UCSC for the social connections, opportunities to make friends, find a sense of purpose and contribute. They also emphasized that being involved in a world class university makes it easier to be lifelong learners.
Although this sample of highly educated, above average income retirees is not representative of all retirees and perhaps represents a more “ideal retirement,” the responders are role models of “regular people” successfully enjoying retirement and illustrate some significant learning points raised in the research literature.
Retirees are largely satisfied with their lives and for some this may be the happiest they have ever been.
Having a sense of control, being goal-directed, planning for retirement, implementing some projects and involvements before retiring, having concrete strategies to deal with goals and losses and having supportive social and tech connections are all factors associated with having a purposeful and successful retirement, including better health and being better prepared for “going solo.” Retirement, like other developmental stages, takes adequate financial resources, planning and reflection, and is an ongoing process of multiple and cumulative transitions (Calvo and Sarksisian, 2011).
The Beatles said it best, “I get by with a little help from my friends.”
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