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M Cecil Smith

Department of Educational Psychology, Counseling, & Special Education Northern Illinois University

Talk presented at the NIU Annuitants’Association meeting April 26, 1990



I’d like to talk to you this evening about retirement and the preparation for retirement,

from the perspective of a developmental psychologist. Psychologists such as myself, who

study developmental events occurring across the life span, are interested in the process of

retirement because it is one of the hallmark passages in the life of the individual. I speak

of- retirement as a process, rather than a single event, because retirement occurs not only

at that moment when the individual receives his or her gold watch from the company.

Retirement occurs, rather, over a lengthy period of time and the process of retiring is

marked by several developmental tasks. These tasks must be recognized, negotiated, and

resolved in order for the individual to find personal fulfillment.

I’d like to begin by asking you to respond to a couple of questions. First of all, for those

of you who are thinking about, or actually planning for, impending retirement: What are

your ideas about what your retirement is going to be like? For those of you who have

been retired for some time: Have your retirement experiences thus far met your

expectations of what retirement is “supposed” to be?

Nancy Datan, a prominent psychologist in the study of adult development, refers to

retirement as “the long weekend” (Datan & Thomas, 1984). This metaphor suggests

several views of retirement. I’d like to elaborate on each of these views for a few minutes

to set the stage for the ideas that I wish to discuss concerning what I refer to as transition

and growth in retirement. While transitions or changes are inevitable throughout our

lives, growth can only occur through the resolution of various developmental tasks.


What images come to mind when we think of retirement as a “long weekend”? Just as the

arrival of the weekend signals the end of the workweek, so retirement signals the end of

the worklife. This metaphor strongly suggests that the end of one s working life is also

the end of one’s life.

Unfortunately, in my view, this is how retirement is generally perceived in our society. It

is this aspect of retirement which psychologists and social gerontologists have devoted

most of their efforts in examining and attempting to understand.

The “long weekend” metaphor also symbolizes the transition from working, from being

productive and making a contribution to society, to inactivity, inertia, and stagnation.

Retirement is seen as a sort of “less than” condition: the retiree is less productive than

when he or she was working, and so, is considered to be less important and less valuable

than the worker (Miller, 1965). This view, like the first, is obviously a quite negative

attitude about retirement. Perhaps this mind-set has something to do with the mythic

“Protestant work ethic” under which most of us toil throughout our productive years

(Weber, 1958). This attitude assumes that the retired individual will be inactive, or will--

at best--lead a life of non— directed leisure activity.

This transitional aspect of retirement, from full time productivity to relative inactivity in

the economic marketplace, has also been the focus of much research by both

psychologists and sociologists. The questions of interest are: what effects does retirement


have on the self— concept and self— esteem of the retiree? How well do most adults

adjust to retirement? And, how satisfied are they with their lives as retirees?

Finally, the third dimension of the metaphor suggested by Datan is that of a transition

from one kind of activity— work--to another kind of activity, self-development. It is this

dimension of the “long weekend” metaphor that has the most positive, health-enhancing

and health-sustaining implications for us to consider. Retirement presents the mature

adult with many opportunities for growth and self-renewal.

I’d like to focus on this positive dimension of Datan’s metaphor. Keeping this metaphor

in mind--the transition from one kind of activity to another--I’d like also to talk about

how this transitional process affects several developmental tasks in the retiring person’s

life. These tasks have to do with achieving self— acceptance and, in some cases self-

esteem, reexamining the role of social and family relationships during the retirement

process, and deciding how one will live one’s life in retirement. These tasks are not

merely a replacement for the loss of work-related tasks. More important, the successful

resolution of these tasks improves the quality of one’s life in retirement.

The loss of a work role in our work-oriented society may, in some cases, be damaging to

the retiree’s self-esteem. The person may say, “Who am I without my work? I have no

identity.” I do not want to place too much emphasis on this point. There is little evidence

that retirement negatively affects the self-concept or self-esteem of most people (Cottrell

& Atchley, 1969). In fact, retirement seems to have little impact on one’s self-concept or


self-esteem (George, 1980). What is important is that the end of one s work life results in

a certain discontinuity of experience. Again, the image of a shift from productivity to

inactivity comes to mind. Those who adjust best to retirement are individuals who

develop a life style that provides continuity with their past working lives and which meets

their long-term needs (Reichard, Livson, & Peterson, 1968)

Retirement does not mean that the retired person must adopt a completely new identity:

that of a “retired person.” While no longer a teacher, a secretary, or a railroad conductor,

the individual often continues to view him—

or herself in terms of their former work life

(e.g., “I’m a retired investment banker”). Gerontologist Robert Atchley (1977) suggests,

however, that very few people rest their identity on a single role. The social roles of

spouse, parent, grandparent, church deacon, or volunteer still exist for the person, despite

the fact that he or she has retired. No doubt these roles are equally important as our work

role in providing us with a sense of self-esteem and identity.

Erik Erikson describes eight ages in the life course of individuals. Each age has particular

developmental tasks associated with it. The resolution of these tasks serves to shape one’s

personality within a social context. The two ages relevant to mature adulthood are

described by Erikson as periods for achieving generativity” and “ego integrity.”

Generativity occurs at midlife and is the concern one has in establishing and guiding the

next generation. The developmental task at hand is to make a contribution to future

generations through one’s productivity and creativity. Thus, a legacy of oneself is left to

successive generations. Generativity includes personal renewal (Schlossberg, 1984), and


the retirement process creates many opportunities for the individual to renew him or

herself in terms of creative works, personal development, and achieving intimacy with

others. In doing so, many of the needs of adult life can be met over the course of the

“long weekend.”

Achieving intimacy means to attain satisfying relationships with other people. These

relationships are marked by affection, mutual trust, empathy and understanding. The most

logical place for the mature adult to form such intimate relationships is in the context of

his or her family: spouse, adult children, and grandchildren. Our close interpersonal

relationships can be a source of support in times of stress, as the transition to retirement

may be.

The retired adult can now turn attention to the intimate aspects of his or her marital

relationship. By this I mean seeking ways to improve communication with a partner,

renewing commitments that have been unspoken over the years, and openly expressing

care for one another. These tasks are particularly important because retirement offers the

couple the opportunity to devote their energies to the creation of a new marital

relationship. In fact, the retirement of one or both spouses will have serious consequences

for the relationship, and so the marriage must be renegotiated.

If we examine more closely some of the particulars of retirement for the couple, we can

see how the development of a renewed and stronger relationship can be adaptive during

the retirement process. The timing of retirement is an important factor. Many spouses


retire together. This allows them to enjoy their free time together, share new interests and

activities, travel together and so on. When husbands retire first, problems may arise if the

husband becomes bored with his retirement activities. Another problem occurs when the

husband is envious of his still-working wife who is active and has many social contacts

through her work.

So, retirement can have different effects on spouses. Wives are often more satisfied with

their retirement than are their husbands. Wives may, however, find their husband’s

retirement, to be a source of difficulty--particularly if the husband is dissatisfied with his

retirement status. The husband who fails to develop a plan for his own self-development

may become overly dependent upon his wife for emotional support. Indeed, she may no

his only regular social contact. The burden of such responsibility may be too much for the


Retirement of the wife seems to result in fewer adjustment problems for the couple.

Couples usually do not have to renegotiate the allocation of household tasks, having a

long-established division of labor. A typical difficulty is that household tasks do not

compensate for the loss of work, and are usually much less fulfilling. So, new activities

and routines must be developed. A further difficulty that often accompanies retirement is

the loss of regular social contacts.

Retirement, of course, does provide time to spend with one’s adult children,

grandchildren, and aging parents. This can be both a blessing and a curse, depending


upon the quality of relationships within the family, geographic proximity, and the health

status of family members. Unresolved conflicts with adult children may come to the fore

again, and so retirement may be a time for reestablishing the intimate bonds that marked

the early years of parenting. Also, there is more time for grandchildren. The retired adult

can pass along knowledge, skills, and wisdom to yet another generation. Erikson’s task of

qenerativity reemerges in retirement. The retired adult may find him or herself helping

not only members of the younger generation, but also caring for aging parents. So, the

retirement years offer opportunities for self-development through learning how to

become more intimate, working on communication skills, improving one’s relationships,

and providing care for others.

By “ego integrity” Erikson was referring to the sense of wholeness achieved by looking

back on one’s life with a sense of satisfaction. The retiree may ask questions such as:

what have I accomplished? What have I yet to do with the time I have left? What can I

realistically hope to accomplish? And finally, can I live with the limitations of my life?

This last question, and how it is answered, seems to be the key to establishing a sense of


Achieving ego integrity means that one has adapted to the realities of one’s own life and

can preserve a sense of self. Self-acceptance is thereby achieved. This task of achieving

ego integrity is a mostly unconscious process that can be greatly nurtured by the activities

of the retired individual. Among these activities is the creation and acceptance of new


roles in life that provide a sense of continuity, satisfaction, and stability over the course

of the long weekend.

In looking at these roles, we turn to the theme of establishing new relationships and

nurturing old ones. With the end of the work life, there exists the threat of an ending to

one’s friendship network-— particularly if this network consists of fellow workers. There

is little evidence that retirement in and of itself has a negative influence on the quality of

one’s friendships, associations, or family life (Atchley, 1976). Nonetheless, questions

may arise for the retiree: how can I maintain the friendships that I have? To what extent

do I want to remain a social person? Can I establish new friendships? Do I want to

establish new friendships? These questions may be particularly salient if the retiree plans

to relocate, for example moving from northern Illinois to sunny Florida.

Friendships tend to be based on common interests and similarity in terms of age, sex,

race, and social class. Consequently, moving to a new location with a high percentage of

persons of your same age facilitates the development of new friendships. While you may

not yet be ready for Sun City, such environments do ensure that one has ready access to

people with similar interests and values. However, other factors such as cost and loss of

physical proximity to family, have to be considered before relocating.


In summary, I have only a few final comments. I’ve attempted to emphasize that

retirement is a process, rather than a single occasion in the life of the adult. Throughout

the process of considering, approaching, accepting, and living in retirement, several


developmental tasks emerge which call for action and resolution if the person is to lead a

happy and fulfilling life after one s work is done.

Retiring from work does not mean retiring from life. There are many opportunities for

growth, renewal, and self-development during one’s retirement years. The individual who

looks forward to the challenge of meeting these opportunities head on and working

through the accompanying developmental tasks will be happier and healthier. Such a

person is likely to achieve ego integrity.

Finally, two important factors in one’s preparation for, and entry into, retirement are

having accurate preconceptions about what retirement is like, and having a good attitude

toward retirement. I hope that I’ve helped you to clarify some of your perceptions about

retirement this evening. Further, I think that you are all here because you do look forward

to your retirement years. You have a positive view of retirement, and the evidence

strongly suggests that your lives in retirement will be satisfying because you recognize

the potential you have for personal growth in this era of your lives.