Exploring Retirement


Welcome to the September 2014 edition of Exploring Retirement. As the proportion of older people in the population has grown, social scientists have become increasingly interested in the retired as a social grouping. This month we take a look at some of the theories that they have put forward to describe the behaviour of older adults in retirement. These theories are important because, over the years, they have influenced government policy regarding the treatment of older people in our society.

The rise in life expectancy has been surprisingly constant for many years. The theories we examine in this issue were all developed 40-50 years ago and hence need to be reconsidered in the light of the increase in healthy life expectancy that has taken place since then. Next month we will continue to explore this theme by examining more recent thinking.

Feedback from readers is always welcome. Please let us know your thoughts on retirement and whether you think any of the approaches put forward by the academic theoreticians describes your own approach to retirement. E-mail your comments to editor@exploringretirement.co.uk.

Theories of Retirement

Disengagement theory

When discussing the various sociological theories which have been developed to describe how people behave as they transition to retirement, it is important to remember when these theories were first proposed. One of the earliest theories of ageing and retirement was based on work by social scientists Elaine Cumming and William Henry in the 1950's. Their "disengagement theory", proposed that in the normal course of ageing, people gradually withdrew or disengaged from social roles as a natural response to lessened capabilities and diminished interest, and to societal disincentives for participation. This theory seemed reasonable in the 1950's and 60's when life expectancy was shorter, work was physically harder, retirement was mandatory and there was little organised for older adults.

A major criticism of disengagement theory is that while their methodology was correct, Cumming and Henry's work was based on older people residing in nursing homes. Since the population they studied were largely in poor health and many had life-limiting conditions, disengagement theory is really only applicable to older people in failing health. Professor Laura Carstensen has also pointed out that it is not unusual for older people to possess a smaller social circle but that this is not necessarily a problem, as it is the quality of the relationships that counts and not the quantity.

Disengagement theory was very influential in the 1960's and 70's and it's impact can still be felt today in the way many nursing homes fail to provide adequate stimulation and social integration for residents.

Activity theory

When he studied the behaviour of older adults who were in good health and living in the community, psychologist Robert Havighurst formulated a very different theory of older adult behaviour. Havighurst's "activity theory". argued that the social and psychological needs of older people are no different from those of the middle-aged. He believed that it was neither normal nor natural for people to become isolated and withdrawn and when they do it was often due to ill health or the loss of someone dear to them.

Decades of social research has tended to support Havighurst's ideas and has cast doubt on disengagement theory. Indeed a study by Professor Gene Cohen found that retired people became more active socially in the first few years that they were retired. Unfortunately, as Professor Cohen has stated, it has taken a long time to recover from the wrong turning taken by Cumming and Henry.

Activity theory also makes the point that the ageing process is delayed and the quality of life is enhanced when older people remain socially active and that there is a positive relationship between activity and life satisfaction. Activity theory has been at least partly responsible for the development of public policies to develop senior centres and other recreational facilities for older adults. It's impact can also be seen in areas such as free or subsidised public transport for older people.

Of course, not everyone will enjoy good health as they grow older and this will impact on their ability to remain actively involved. However, to the extent that they can, they should be encouraged to engage as fully as possible. Research study after research study continues to highlight the importance of physical activity in delaying the ageing process and reducing the incidence of many life limiting conditions.

Continuity theory

A third theory of retirement was proposed by Professor Robert Atchley following a major longitudinal study that started 1975 and followed the same people for 20 years, as they went through the retirement transition (the Ohio Longitudinal Study of Ageing and Adaptation). The "continuity theory" he developed as a result states that older adults usually maintain the same activities, behaviours, personalities, and relationships as they did in their earlier years of life. Major research studies since have lent support to this view that changes in lifestyle occur gradually and sometimes imperceptibly.

Continuity theory is useful when advising people who are considering retirement in the next year or so. Rather than wait until they have retired to begin exploring an interest or hobby, they should start before they retire and then continue to develop their interest once retired.

Professor Atchley stresses that his theory does not predict that using a continuity strategy for decision making about your retirement lifestyle will necessarily lead to successful adaptation to retirement. It simply predicts that most people will continue to do what they have always done as their first adaptive strategy for coping with the retirement transition. Nevertheless, continuity strategies seem to be adaptive for most people as a means of maintaining life satisfaction, even among those who experience disability.

While Professor Atchley's theory was intended as a description of post-retirement activities other then work, continuing to work past the normal retirement age has now become a significant trend in the developed world. In the past women in the UK could retire earlier than men, at age 60. Official figures recently released from the Office of National Statistics in the UK show there are now 850,000 women over 60 who are continuing in employment when they might traditionally have expected to have stopped working. This is the highest figure since records began - and the number of older women workers is growing faster than any other age group. Over the 12 months to October last year, a further 63,000 women aged 60 or above took a job, accelerating an upward trend that began around 2003, when fewer than 600,000 worked beyond 60. Why is this? undoubtedly some people want to continue to work at jobs they enjoy but also many older people need to continue working to make up the shortfall between the state pension and the cost of living. This is particularly true for many women as they tend to have lower pension income than men. Recent government legislation has made it easier to continue to work in a job past the traditional retirement age and most people recognise that finding new employment when you are over 60 will be very difficult. It is much easier in this case to continue in the job you are in.

Featured activity - Travel Fellowships

The Winston Churchill Memorial Trust was founded to perpetuate and honour the memory of Sir Winston Churchill by administering the award of Travelling Fellowships known as a Churchill Fellowship. In 2007 I visited the United States on a Winston Churchill Travel Fellowship. My subject of study was "The Third Age - Challenges and Opportunities". My aim as a Churchill Fellow was to research social initiatives intended to enrich the third age in areas such as community involvement, education, fitness, health, leisure, social contact, and work.

I chose to visit North America because the 77 million Americans born during the "Baby Boom" years from 1946 to 1964 were starting to enter retirement at about this time. They are the largest cohort of healthy, active, well-educated Americans there has ever been. The UK was also experiencing a similar social phenomenon with many of the same issues. In the United States a national debate had been underway for some time and I hoped to learn from their experience. During my four weeks in America I met more than thirty individuals in over twenty different organisations. My schedule was quite hectic as I wanted to make the most of the opportunity. Every where I went I was greeted with warm hospitality and being a Churchill Fellow opened doors to busy people that I could not otherwise have hoped to meet.

Churchill Travel Fellowships are open to any British citizen resident in the UK and over the age of 18. For a project to be considered for a Fellowship, it must meet the following criteria:

  • It will enable you to bring positive benefit to your community or field of interest, and to you as an individual.
  • It is unlikely to be funded from other sources.
  • It should involve travel overseas for between 4 and 8 weeks.
  • No qualifications are required, applications are judged on the individual and the merit of the project.
  • 150 awards will be made in 2015 for overseas travel of between 4-8 weeks. The Fellowship grants cover all travel, daily costs and insurance. If you have a project in mind that fits with any of the following categories, you should consider making an application:

  • Arts and Older People
  • Crafts and Makers
  • Designers
  • Early Years Intervention
  • Education
  • Environment and Sustainable Living
  • Medicine, Health and Patient Care
  • Prison and Penal Reform
  • Science, Technology and Innovation
  • Young People (Aged 18-25)
  • Open
  • Don't be put off by thinking "I am too old" - I was 61 when I visited the US on my Churchill Fellowship. The closing date for application is 23rd September, 2014. If you cannot apply this year then consider applying next year (applications open in May). For more information on the Winston Churchill Memorial Trust and the award scheme in the UK, go to www.wcmt.org.uk

    Churchill Fellowships are not just restricted to citizens of the United Kingdom. There are also Churchill Trusts in Australia (www.churchilltrust.com.au) and New Zealand (www.communitymatters.govt.nz/Funding-and-grants---Trust-and-fellowship-grants---New-Zealand-Winston-Churchill-Memorial-Trust). Unfortunately plans in the 1960's to create a Churchill Trust in Canada did not get off the ground, although they did have the support of the then Canadian Prime Minister, Lester Pearson.

    Here is a short video on what one of our more adventurous Churchill Fellows got up to. Can you picture yourself doing this?

    Guest contributor - Michael McSorley

    This month guest contributor Michael McSorley casts an eye on Scotland. Following the success of the Commonwealth Games and the imminent referendum about independence on September 18, the country is receiving even more attention than usual. Michael considers Scotland's many attractions, its culture and achievements. To read Michaels article, click here.

    Guest contributor - Jeanette Lewis

    This month Jeanette has taken a look at where ordinary people get there ideas about retirement from. To read Jeanette's take on "Retirement Myths", click here.