Friday, June 26, 2009

Losses and Meaning in Retirement


Retirement is an irrevocable disconnection with so much that has contributed meaning to our lives. Now we are free of both the positive and negative aspects of our working lives. Has our decision to retire been based on a thorough assessment of the balance of the positives and negatives of our working lives? In the case of mandated retirement such a question is irrelevant, but not for those who contemplate early retirement. Many of us may be inclined to focus more on the downside of our employment prior to opting for early retirement. There is often a "last straw" that tips the balance toward retiring early. A typical example is the reaction to pressure for senior workers to be more productive with fewer resources. Such reactions are often emotionally-based and workers tend to overlook less obvious benefits of life in the workplace until after they have retired. An example is the nurturing value of social relationships at work even though some of them are superficial. The value of the social fabric of the workplace, with its mixture of pleasant and unpleasant social interactions, is sometimes only realized in retrospect. There are sometimes subtle positives in the workplace that can be outweighed by obvious negatives. Inducements to retire early are also a significant factor in making this decision. Many of us are sold the myth of freedom from work and the fantasies of travel, recreation and retirement Meccas. Some residential retirement complexes offer a lifestyle where everything is done for us even though we have not yet become invalids. These so-called privileges are presented as wonderful gifts that give us more freedom. We often ignore the fact that the duties and responsibilities from which we are relieved have provided self-esteem and feelings of competence and satisfaction. Now that we are so free what do we do with our freedom? We are free to do what we wanted to do but were not able to do, or chose not to do, while working. We are also free not to do some of the things that were part of the core of our former existence.

Retirement results in a major loss of the "courage to be as a part of." The core anxieties of human existence (death, fate and meaninglessness) are moderated to some extent by being part of some group or collective. Within this community people find meaning and security that relieves them of the anxiety they might feel if living without a community of shared interest. The loss of membership in a workplace community removes the security and meaning the worker formerly enjoyed. This loss can leave workers more exposed to the anxieties listed above. As already discussed, many retirees already have an increased awareness of their mortality, but they don't know how much longer they will live and how they will die. These twin anxieties are consolidated by the loss of the meanings that were part of their work community and their particular role in it. They are no longer able to find some security from the threat of these anxieties by being a part of a larger whole. They are now left to stand alone as individuals. It is not surprising that some retirees experience an onrush of anxiety and even descend into depression. Being part of other communities of interest beyond the workplace may provide alternative protection from the anxieties that are an unavoidable aspect of human existence. The importance of having a diversity of groups or communities to which retirees belong prior to retirement is obvious.

In some cases the satisfaction gained from the fulfillment of popular retirement myths and fantasies is short lived. Although we may be free from work we are also losing the challenges, successes, failures and meanings that went with our jobs. While we might think of the problems and tensions we endured while working, we tend to overlook the ways in which these same experiences energized our lives and provided us with challenges and important life-lessons. We are no longer in a context where we are forced to face the various problems that arise within the work-world. Our release from employment can leave us free in ways that resemble exile. We stand alone, stripped of most of the social and psychological contexts that provided us with so much meaning for so many years. Now we face the task of developing a new life-structure in a societal environment that is indifferent and offers few meaningful options to those previously provided by our work. Filling our lives with recreations and hobbies is a poor substitute for the complexity, continuity and challenges of the workplace. Hobbies can distract us from thinking about problems that we encounter in retirement. Many of us hope that our retirement will be more than just filling in time with recreations, hobbies and travel, but we may find ourselves in a society unsympathetic to our possible interest in continuing with paid employment either full or part-time.

Coping with the shock of the abrupt removal of our work-life structure is the stage of retirement when we are probably most vulnerable. As retirement proceeds we usually become better at managing the transition from work. Jules Willing, in his book The Reality of Retirement captures the experience of the neophyte retiree trying to get a handle on his sudden release to "freedom" from work. He is on unfamiliar ground, having to face the future devoid of the structure that was the hub of his existence.

… precisely at the time he turns to consider his unshaped future, he is like an electric appliance after the plug has been pulled. He has become a de-activated mechanism: There is a zero reading on the dials that used to measure his productivity, potential for further achievement, career progress, his influence, authority, and responsibility. This is the worst of all possible times for creating a sensible action program, and the process of doing so is itself a wounding experience. For the first time he begins to think (to continue the machine analogy) not in terms of the functions he can perform but of the salvage value of his parts (Willing, J.Z., 1981, The reality of retirement, p.47, New York: William Morrow).

What are the aspects of meaning that come up after retirement begins? The word retirement means "to leave, to retreat, to exit, to withdraw." Another meaning is "to go away or apart, to a place of abode, shelter or seclusion." These definitions do not address the question of whether retirement is voluntary or involuntary. The phrase involuntary retirement evokes very different synonyms to the word retirement. Appropriate synonyms for this phrase might be "jettisoned, cut, cancelled, dumped, discarded and eliminated." These words imply the strong possibility that involuntary retirement might result in more severe negative reactions than self-initiated retirement.. A legacy of bad feelings is not necessarily confined to those retirees who do not choose retirement. Even voluntary retirees who want to continue working elsewhere might think such thoughts as "No doubt other workers or machines have taken over my old job. Maybe my job doesn't exist anymore. What does that tell me about what I have been doing for so many years? Was it a waste of time? When I got the 'we'll call you if we need you' reception during my recent job search, despite my experience and availability, I felt like the only place to go was the scrap heap. Am I that worthless?"


In retrospect retirees might, after the fact, see the inducements to retire early as carefully designed propaganda that are motivated by an employer's desire to cut payroll by shedding senior, and thus more highly paid, staff. Early retirement incentives can also function as negative "reinforcers" in that they are sometimes offered during lean times when employees are pressed to do more with less. Early retirement is reinforced by the removal of the aversive work pressures. Retirement myths rather than realities also contribute to the appeal of early retirement by acting as positive "reinforcers". Fantasies of less pressure, freedom, travel and sunshine fuel the lure of early retirement.

Both voluntary and involuntary retirees can have bad feelings about the apparent insignificance of their working lives when they see "business as usual" after their departure. The wheels of life and industry continue to turn and may leave retirees with the feeling that they did not matter. When they visit their former places of employment they may be greeted with "What are you doing here?" Although well intended, such remarks can heighten retirees' feelings of being discounted. These types of feelings, that are part of the aftertaste of retirement, cannot be blamed on particular individuals. They may be more the result of an economic system in which most individuals are dispensable and replaceable. For some retirees such feelings of being sent into exile are not an issue because their focus is on moving forward into their retirement. It is also true that many involuntary retirees go on to a successful retirement. Nonetheless, such experiences of post-retirement devaluation do exist and are part of the larger issue of meaning.

Some of us would like to believe that our contribution to our career or vocation was significant or valued in ways that are not necessarily reflected by retirement parties, gold watches and kind words from co-workers or colleagues. Workers who are about to retire often hear hackneyed speeches at hackneyed farewell ceremonies, and have seen the traditional gold watches or mass produced gifts given to earlier retirees. These clich├ęs can lead them to believe that this retirement ritual is a kind of mechanical genuflection that leaves them feeling insignificant. This is not to say that those who arrange and administer retirement farewells are anything less than sincere. Some might say that if there is a problem it lies with the retirees, but if retirees experience the process in this way their lived experience is true for them regardless of whether it is justified in the eyes of others. By analogy, we might say that a posthumous award for a life given in outstanding bravery is a poor trade for a person's spouse and family. The point is that even though there may be great appreciation for service given by those who are retiring, there can be feelings of insignificance that are more related to our human situation in terms of our insignificance within the cosmos. It is a vague feeling of not being at home in the world or an underlying anxiety that is not connected to anything in particular. This anxiety expresses itself most commonly in the questions "why are we here?" and "what's the point?"

The beginning of retirement marks a new phase in our lives. When we cross the boundary between employment and retirement, questions of meaning will inevitably arise, if they have not already been acknowledged. Even if there has been some thought about those questions, taking retirement provides an actual lived experience rather than anticipated experience. How do we find meaning in retirement? What has been the meaning of our lives to this point? What should we have done with our lives? What will we do with the rest of our lives? Which choices do we make among the many options available in retirement? How can we build a structure in our lives to take the place of work? To be engaged in a worthy struggle might be essential to our survival. How can we make our lives a worthwhile contribution to humanity? These are just some of the sorts of questions that are relevant for retirees. The most important aspect of any choices that we make is that they lead to engagement with the world but not busyness. Busyness can crowd out a genuine awareness of the importance of meaning and leave us feeling numb. Nor do we need to be programmed by the propaganda and myths of the retirement industry by telling ourselves repeatedly how great retirement is when, if we were honest with ourselves, we might say otherwise. Willing poses an essential question: What are retired people good for? This is the question every retired person has to answer for himself. Until better answers are found, capable and useful people will try to lead stereotypical existences that make no demands on their intellect and no use of their life experience, in that mythical retirement world in which there is no loneliness, worry, sickness and death; in short a time and place devoid of meaning (Willing, J.Z., 1981, The reality of retirement, pp. 174-175, New York: William Morrow).

There are a number of theories about human development and the lifespan that can shed light on the role of our past in shaping the meaningfulness of our future retirement. The first theory is called activity or role theory. When we retire we may lose some of the roles that we have played in the past that are directly related to our jobs. If we held a high executive or professional post in our occupational field we may have to move from the role of being a VIP to that of being John or Mary Q. Public. For others, within their occupational role there may have been sub-roles such as social organizer, shop steward or chairman of various sub-committees. These roles and the social contact associated with them are also lost in retirement. However, although we may no longer hold our occupational roles we may continue to socialize with some of our former co-workers.

Another source of role loss could be aging. Retirees may have reached a point where they can no longer continue with certain physical activities. We can compensate for the loss of some activities associated with our occupation by taking on activities that are appropriate to our capacities. If retirees move their residence there is likely to be a loss of contact with friends. This can be made more severe if the move involves a great distance.

Moving to a place where the climate is warmer may not compensate for the loss of friendships and activities that have been built up over many years. Even though retirees can try to develop new friendships and activities within the new environment they are no substitute for the loss of long-term relationships and communal activities. Apart from the time it takes to develop a new circle of compatible friends there is the problem of the energy required and the absence of roles that were once the medium by which social relationships developed. For example, during the years that couples were raising families they would have met other families who were involved in shared activities such as schooling, sports and cultural events.
Role change can also happen on the home front. Retirees are likely to spend more time at home. What effects will this have in terms of their relationships with their spouses or partners and families? Depending on whether there is a partner and whether that partner is working, some of the former roles may need to be changed. There may be power shifts within a couple's relationship. If he retires first, she may have a tendency to see him as being dependent on her. He may find that his lost role as breadwinner leaves him feeling guilty and inadequate in the relationship. The same dynamic may apply if a woman retires first. How are the cooking, cleaning and shopping activities to be assigned? Are there territorial issues to be settled like who has priority in the workshop, garden and kitchen? There is no doubt that retirement requires adjustments due to the loss of some roles related to previous occupation. Many of the roles retirees are involved in before retirement continue unless they need to be modified by changes in retirees' physical and mental capabilities, health or finances.

Continuity theory can also help us understand the transition to retirement. It is based on the fact that although we live in the present our existence is an extension of the past and an anticipation of the future. The changes that occur within our lives happen within the context of a continuous life-space. To some extent at least, our past determines our present and future. This is why our history is a good predictor of our future, but this does not mean we are necessarily prisoners of our past. Change is always a possibility.

There are two forms of continuity. Inner continuity is the continuation of a structure that involves ideas, temperament, emotions, experiences, preferences, dispositions and skill. Our personality, emotions, likes and dislikes, outlook on the world and abilities are some of the expressions of our internal continuity. External continuity is the continuation of a structure of relationships and observable behaviors. In other words, external continuity is evident in our habitual patterns of behavior. We are aware of our continuity through personal hindsight because our experience is unique to us. We are the only ones who can track our continuity because we are in the position of being a privileged observer of our own experience. Internal continuity is necessary for cognitive knowledge, a sense of ego integrity, self-esteem and being able to respond to important needs. External continuity is necessary for social stability. There is little doubt that many retirees experience disruption of continuity due to their retirement. Retirees need to understand they still retain certain qualities and skills that can be used to navigate the transition to retirement, especially in the beginning when both the present and the future need to be re-organized. The transition to retirement is a process and not a complete change from one state of life to another.

We play a number of roles that allow us to navigate different situations such as being a parent, organization president, a lay preacher or an athlete. In these roles we might present different impressions of ourselves depending on the situation. This is called impression management and is usually done for reasons of self-interest. For example, the lay preacher would not use the language of a football dressing room during a sermon. Carl Jung calls these various roles "personas" or "masks" that we wear when appropriate. These masks are not necessarily reflective of the real person. Using these different masks is adaptive when it comes to making our way in society. It's is a matter of behaving normatively in various social situations unless one wants to assume the mask of a social activist or non-conformist. In retirement we may need to continue with some of our former roles or personas but also find new ones for our new situation. There is always the danger that some people are so good at courting social acceptance by assuming the appropriate mask that they lose their real self and become a series of cardboard cut-outs, at the mercy of social approval. In retirement we can discard our work persona for a more authentic self if we wish or even adopt another more appropriate persona. The problem in retirement is which parts of ourselves we are to reveal, especially if we are trying to establish a new life in a new community. Do we have to be especially nice and gregarious or can we be our authentic selves?

Our sense of identity is more related to internal continuity than to our self-concept because it is always present regardless of social situations. Our self-concept is comprised of many ideas or impressions that we have about ourselves. We can have several selves but only one identity. Our identity crystallizes from all the impressions we have of ourselves. Our notions of our self develop into generalizations that form our core identity. For example, as a result of having a number of self-concepts that involve helping others we may come to consider compassion as part of our identity. Sometimes if we were accused of being callous by exercising tough love we might be tempted to defend ourselves with the claim that we are really compassionate people. We can also change our identity by reinterpreting past events. We may reinterpret our youthful experience of doing without a car as evidence of personal sacrifice or wise money management when in fact it was simply a default situation resulting from limited funds. In this way, we can develop an identity that may be based on a selective interpretation of the past. This sort of behaviour can occur when retirees begin to reflect nostalgically on their pasts. Changes to our identity occur on an ongoing basis throughout our lives and are often subtle.

When retirees enter retirement they encounter an experience with which they are often unfamiliar. This can result in a disruption of their internal continuity and lead to an identity crisis. For example, if we have the impression that we have competently managed various changes in our lives up to the present, we may be taken by surprise to find that retirement is not quite what we expected. Perhaps we did not realize some of the personal and social consequences of retirement. Perhaps the loss of our work-life structure takes us by surprise when we are confronted with a new freedom that allows us many more choices than we expected. We may become victims of decision paralysis. We feel that things are not going as well as we would like. Our usual way of dealing with new situations doesn't seem to be working. Our internal moorings seem to have come adrift.

By the time workers retire they often have become adept at making the changes necessary to maintain external continuity. Their prior experience of the world enables them to make the appropriate changes and compensate for some losses due to age by changing activities and allowing more time to complete difficult tasks. Realistic adaptation to changing bodies and circumstances, such as the avoidance of heavy lifting or extreme exercise, help maintain external continuity. Retirees are well advised to consider that a stable environment also helps maintain continuity. Changes such as a new living environment can disrupt external continuity, as can the loss of a retiree's life partner. Another possible cause of discontinuity is the deterioration of certain skills, as in the case of a musician who can no longer play. This type of discontinuity can cause problems for a musician's core identity. An internal discontinuity such as the loss of mental competence can also lead to external discontinuity in the form of others pressuring the retiree to maintain previous levels of performance. For example, a retiree's spouse may urge him to maintain activities that have become too demanding in terms of his current level of fitness and energy. A certain amount of pulling back on energy outlays is common to aging.

Maintaining continuity does not mean that change is to be avoided. Change is best coped with when there is stability in the life-space of retirees. Many retirees continue with well-established former roles rather than search for new roles to replace those lost to retirement. They seem to show a preference for sticking with what they know. This is likely the case because these roles maintain self-esteem and status. Nonetheless, the preference for continuation of existing roles does not prevent the adoption of new roles.

A third theory to consider, when trying to understand the transition to retirement, is crisis theory. It suggests that the loss of an occupational role can lead to an identity crisis. One of the reasons why retirees adopt new roles in retirement is that, to some extent, these new roles are a compensation for a possible identity crisis caused by the loss of their occupational role. The value of roles or activities is that they offer a form of engagement that can help fill the hole left by the loss of the work-life structure. The specter of low income, loss of status and declining health can increase the probability of retirement leading to an identity crisis.

Job loss tends not to be an identity crisis for those workers who see their job primarily as a means of earning a living and supporting a particular lifestyle. An identity crisis may be more likely when the change in the worker or the new environment is so great that it cannot be accommodated by the ways in which the worker usually copes with the ups and downs of his or her life. The change is overwhelming, but crisis is by no means inevitable. Much depends on how individual retirees experience the shift to retirement. Voluntary retirees might appear to have a lower probability of experiencing a crisis following retirement. Some may underestimate the impact of the adjustment to retirement life and the extent to which their occupation contributed to their identity. A lot depends on the sort of expectations held before retirement and their experience of the reality of retirement. Those whose expectations match their subsequent experience will be less likely to encounter unpleasant surprises but not be immune from the wild card of fate or the possibility of oversights in their goals and planning.

One of the main findings in the research on retirement is that those retirees who lead active lives before retiring tend to do so in retirement. This supports continuity theory and implies that whatever we want to do in retirement should be established before we retire. As might be expected, involuntary retirees appear to have more difficulty adjusting to retirement than voluntary retirees. Involuntary retirees are usually those who are laid off, those whose health forces retirement and those who enjoy their work and would like to keep working but have reached "retirement age." The variability in the factors that affect the experience of retirement makes generalizations risky, but there are indications that most retirees experience retirement positively.

There are certain associative relationships between retirement experience and conditions within the workplace and the retiree, but it would be unwise to treat these findings as generalizations rather than trends. As discussed earlier, similar circumstances before and after retirement faced by two retires can produce two opposite experiences (a voluntary retiree regrets being retired while another voluntary retiree enjoys retirement). Another problem with studies of post-retirement experience is the lack of pre-retirement measures that might have shown whether some future retirees have a negative attitude towards life that is also expressed in retirement. This possibility fits with continuity theory and the view that retirement experience needs to be understood within the context of our whole life.

The research support for crisis theory is ambivalent. There seems to be a significant number of retirees who experience a crisis in retirement, but the actual percentage is uncertain. It appears that loss of identity and financial concerns are major factors leading to such a crisis. Lack of confidence and self-worth also seem to be part of the picture. More educated and high achievement workers seem to do better in retirement in terms of adjustment. Apart from the circumstances of a worker's retirement, perhaps the most important factor in adjusting to retirement is the capacity of the individual worker to cope with change. We might also add that those who can cope with change, as it occurs in life in general, probably transfer that capability to changes triggered by retirement. Because change is a fundamental aspect of human existence those retirees who have been able to ride the highs and lows of their pre-retirement life will likely be able to cope with the shift to retirement. Our lives are punctuated with losses as well as moments of satisfaction and happiness. Even our most treasured moments come and go. Nothing remains the same. We notice this sometimes when we meet our closest friend of years ago only to find that the connection has changed even though the reunion is cordial. It is this fundamental ability to accept and flow with the rhythm of life that may be the best preparation for coping with the transition to retirement.
How we deal with the meaning of our existence prior to retirement will figure prominently in how we deal with the meaning of our retirement. Much of what we have done before will impact up our retirement in varying degrees. Some of it will be positive and some negative. The theories of activity, continuity, and crisis are all relevant to our lives before retirement. There will probably be a high degree of transfer of whatever means we have or have not used to cope with any crises or major life transitions we have previously encountered. It is often said that the best predictor of a person's behavior is their past. This is not always true but it does seem to be true that there is a positive correlation between our well-being before and after retirement. Keep in mind, though, that retirement itself has been shown to produce only a marginal increase in well-being.


Chapter from the Book: Essential Retirement: Psychological Concerns

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