Retirement from work is a major life transition. For many, retirement from paid employment is something to look forward to. But for others, retirement can pose many challenges and they find it difficult to adjust to their new role and circumstances. While many people enjoy the freedom that retirement offers, it has been estimated that approximately 25% of retirees experience difficulties resulting in adverse psychosocial outcomes.

The nature of retirement is itself undergoing a period of transition. Governments in many countries have enacted policies to encourage people to work until later in life. In response, alongside a general increase in labour market participation amongst older workers, we are also witnessing the emergence of new forms of working in later life, such as partial retirement, bridge jobs and un-retirement. Hence, the ways in which people enter retirement are becoming more and more varied. These new ways of working and retiring present a range of challenges and opportunities for older workers. Therefore, to ensure that everybody can enjoy a good later life, we need to better understand what factors can impact on people’s adjustment to retirement.

In order to address these issues we were commissioned by the Centre for Ageing Better to conduct an extensive review of the literature to identify what factors impact on people’s attitudes towards their upcoming retirement and their experience of the period after they retire from paid work. To deliver this review I led a multi-disciplinary, multinational team comprising researchers from Swansea University (Prof Katrina Pritchard, Dr Cara Reed and Ms Maria Cheshire-Allen), the Netherlands Interdisciplinary Demographic Institute (Prof Kene Henkens and Dr Marleen Damman) and the Stress Research Institute in Stockholm (Dr Loretta Platts).

I was extremely grateful to have such an accomplished and committed team as this was an enormous project that drew on our collective methodological and research expertise and experience. Through our initial search of various literature databases we identified over 1800 possible papers on these topics. It then took us several weeks to whittle these down by eliminating those that were duplicates, not relevant or of a low quality. Still, even after this rigorous process we were still left with 230 papers spanning almost two decades worth of writing to read and review in full. In order to synthesise the extent and breadth of knowledge covered in the literature we used a narrative synthesis approach. Through this process we identified 8 themes that impacted on retirement expectations and adjustment; i) gender, ii) socioeconomic position (SEP), iii) ethnic and cultural factors, iv) family situation, v) health, vi) attitudes to ageing, vii) work and occupation and, viii) preparedness and control. From our findings across these topics our key conclusions are that,

  • control over the retirement process led to more positive adjustment to retirement; thus, people need the resources to be able to take control of their retirement.
  • those in less advantaged social positions tend to have more negative experiences of retirement consistent with research on social inequalities more generally;
  • positive attitudes toward the future predicts high levels of planning among men while negative pre-retirement expectations about the consequences of retirement for leisure activities, social contacts and status predicted difficulties in adjusting to retirement.
  • there are clear evidence gaps in our understanding of the levels of retirement expectations and adjustment and the factors that impact upon them. In particular we found a greater number of studies that looked at pre-retirement expectations than post-retirement adjustment.
  • greater conceptual clarity is needed when researching retirement adjustment, rather than relying on proxy measures or other related, but not synonymous concepts;

Drawing on the dynamic resource model, we argue that policy makers and practitioners must improve the resources that can help people increase their levels of control to enable them to make the decisions that they want to make around work and retirement in later life. Just as choice without control is insufficient to ensure good adjustment to retirement, simply having resources without the control to be able to use them effectively is unlikely to lead to good adjustment. Hence, people approaching and entering retirement not only need the right resources, but they also need to know how best to use them. This requires investment in courses for retirement that go beyond the traditional focus on financial planning. However, current support for the retirement transition is generally focused on the practical and financial aspects of retirement and fails to consider the impact of retirement on our social, psychological, and emotional wellbeing. Clearly more investment and research into such courses is required if we are to adequately support people to be able to successfully adjust to retirement.

Read the full report on the Centre for Ageing Better’s website

Dr Martin Hyde is Associate Professor in Gerontology at the Centre for Innovative Ageing

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