Retirement refers to an ongoing period in life that traditionally has been considered to begin at the point of withdrawal from work life. Retirement is a social concept implemented primarily during the past 100 years due to changes in life expectancies and population demographics. The increase in life expectancies over the past century has produced both challenges and opportunities during the retirement phase of life that continually require increased attention and resources. The arrival of the baby boom generation at retirement age has enormous implications for population demographics, the workforce, and a host of social and economic issues. A dramatic trend toward earlier retirement, coupled with increased life expectancy, ensures a growing focus on issues related to retirement. The fact that the average American can now expect to be in retirement for 15 to 20 years creates demands that no other generation has faced. Retirement has broad social and cultural implications. For individual retirees, this period of life holds remarkable potential and risk as well.

The usual definitions of retirement address withdrawal from the workforce and the remaining years of life. Operationally, retirement has been conceptualized in a variety of ways: (a) a well-deserved rest as a reward for years of work, (b) a means of maintaining an effective work force, (c) a period of transition to old age, (d) a distinct period of human development, (e) a period for postretirement careers, and (f) a period of adjustment to loss of work identity. Perhaps all of these are applicable across or within particular cases. The development of a general theory or model for retirement has been difficult for several reasons. For example, the number of factors that influence the nature and quality of the retirement experience is substantial. Further, there is no real standard for the onset of retirement. Some workers choose to retire early; some choose not to retire at all; others are subject to forced retirement; some retire partially; and some return to work after retirement.

Factors Influencing Retirement

Several specific factors interact to influence individuals’ experience of retirement. These factors include finances, health and medical care, relationships, housing, existential issues, security, and satisfaction with career. Obviously, these factors are highly interrelated in regard to their impact, but they will be described individually.


The financial basis for retirement is probably near crisis levels for a large proportion of the population. Social Security was intended to be a supplemental source of income for retirees, but future recipients are likely to face reduced funding and delayed eligibility. Pensions have been another major source of retirement income, but now only about one fifth of working Americans will receive pension benefits. More recently, there has been a major shift toward personal savings to finance retirement, and this trend is being further encouraged by the federal government. Reverse mortgages have become a popular way to supplement Social Security and savings for many retirees. A reverse mortgage is a loan that enables senior homeowners to convert part of their home equity into tax-free income without having to sell their home, forfeit title to it, or make monthly mortgage payments. Part-time employment for those who are able to work is becoming more common. Given the rapid shift toward personal mechanisms for funding retirement, an emphasis on early career planning is essential.

Health and Medical Care

The ongoing explosion of medical and pharmaceutical costs has a large, disproportional impact on retired persons due to their almost inevitable and disproportionate healthcare needs. Relatively few retirees have the personal savings required to cover a catastrophic illness without health insurance coverage, which can be very expensive to maintain. The Medicare program is a source of help to retirees over age 65, but satisfaction with the system tends to be low among recipients, and many healthcare providers have reservations about the system. It is clear that secure healthcare services are an essential component of the retirement experience.


Aging itself is correlated with loss of important familial, professional, and personal relationships for a variety of reasons. Geographic mobility has greatly disrupted close, extended family relationships. Shifts away from inclusion of the elderly in their children’s homes toward profit-based residential facilities often leads to reduced contact with children and grandchildren. Loss of a spouse to death can have an enormous emotional impact on retirees. Given that social withdrawal can precipitate or exacerbate depression, the maintenance of healthy, reciprocal relationships is essential.


A fundamental decision facing retirees is where they will live and in what form of housing. Many retirees choose to relocate geographically after completing careers. Relocation decisions may be driven by a desire to live in a more preferable climate, availability of recreational activities, proximity to family and friends, etc. Clearly, major relocations must be carefully considered and planned before being undertaken. One model is to vacation in selected locales on a trial basis prior to retirement.

Wherever retirees choose to live, there are many types of housing from which to choose. Maintaining a single family home is, of course, a possibility. As physical abilities decline, maintenance of homes and yards can become taxing. Condominium options, duplexes, and patio or garden homes where maintenance and lawn care are provided can be attractive and practical choices. More recently, communal arrangements are being piloted in which several retirees share a single housing unit. Such arrangements offer opportunities for sharing costs and pro-viding for common needs. Retirement facilities now offer multiple forms of housing to accommodate residents in need of various levels of support and assistance. Generally, costs increase corresponding to needs. Clearly, financial planning for the duration of retirement needs to include contingency plans for increasing levels of care and support. Many preretirement options are being offered by insurance companies to provide for long-term care costs for the elderly.

Existential Issues

The struggle to find and maintain meaning in life continues to be central for many people throughout retirement. The prominence of these issues in adjustment to retirement across individuals will likely vary considerably. For example, individuals who derive meaning and personal identity heavily from their careers can expect some sense of loss after full retirement. Partial retirement is sometimes attractive to such people. For others who view work primarily as a means for achieving financial goals, retirement may represent a dramatic increase in freedom. In any case, engagement in satisfying and meaningful activities during retirement is essential to fostering a sense of well-being. Religious, volunteer, and family-based activities are all means by which individuals can pursue fulfillment. Inactivity and social withdrawal are typically self-destructive in this regard. Both mental and physical activity have profound effects on many dimensions of physical and psychological health, especially during the retirement period.


Security needs are fundamental for most people. During the retirement phase, as health, relationships, and independence may decline, the need for psychological security may be expected to increase. Security needs exist on several levels. Physical protection against abuse or exploitation is perhaps most basic. Many strategies exist in financial planning to protect assets. Housing choices have to include provisions for physical security. Particularly when financial resources are limited, security needs can be more challenging. Involving family, friends, and professionals in evaluating risks and ensuring freedom from exploitation and abuse may be advisable. Older retirees, in particular, may become the targets of predatory exploitive schemes. Unfortunately, family members themselves are often perpetrators of the exploitation of their parents and grandparents. The size of the problem is substantial, with approximately 70% of the nation’s wealth controlled by people nearing, or already in, retirement. The use of professionals outside of the family, primarily certified public accountants (CPAs) and attorneys, can ensure effective protection of assets. The problem of exploitation of the elderly has become so concerning that Congress is currently considering legislation like the Elder Care Act to protect seniors from exploitation.

Career Satisfaction

Retirement, as a stage of life, is affected by the level of career satisfaction one has achieved. This aspect of retirement planning and preparation should be carefully considered. The kind of meaning one seeks in retirement is likely related to the level and kinds of fulfillment already experienced. One central aspect of retirement preparation is to reflect upon what has been satisfying or missing in one’s career life. Retirement activities can build on accomplishments and provide for realizing unmet goals. Disappointments need not be ignored, and retirement can be designed to provide for personal fulfillment as the individual defines it. The career experience is typically a major influence upon this definition.

Lifetime Perspectives

There is a clear trend toward viewing retirement as an integrated developmental period of life. Increased life expectancies and improved health care have led to the extension of retirement for most people. This extension applies not only to years, but also to options and choices of lifestyle. As a continuing period of life, retirement is greatly affected by earlier periods and experiences. This may be most true in terms of the financial circumstances of retiring people.

There are literally thousands of Web sites devoted to planning for retirement, and a vast majority of these Web sites relate to financial planning. The evolution toward individual savings plans as a model for financing retirement is placing heavier responsibility on the individual for financial planning. The range of investment options with their associated risks and benefits makes the use of financial planning professionals a wise choice for most people. Many employers already provide retirement counseling services for employees for this purpose.

Save early and save often is a catchphrase that is often used for financial planning for retirement. Whether one is salaried or self-employed, there are major tax incentives for longer-term savings for retirement. The exponential growth of savings invested early in one’s career adds further credibility to the catchphrase.

Financial conditions will have a major bearing on several dimensions of retirement. However, optimizing the retirement experience requires personal preparation and planning beyond the financial dimensions. One of the fundamental realities of retirement is that retirees will almost always have to assume more responsibility for structuring their time and activities after they leave the world of work, where such structure was largely provided for them. Leisure activities, for example, will typically increase in importance during retirement. Individuals are much more likely to have meaningful leisure activities in retirement when they have a well-established leisure history. Further, as individuals grow older, having several varied types of leisure activities can be useful. Given the profound and consistent relationship of physical activity to mental and physical health among the elderly, well-developed leisure patterns in midlife greatly contribute to quality of life in the retirement years.

Naturally, there are tremendous individual differences in personal needs, preferences, and motivations in retirement. Lifestyle planning is a broad term used to encapsulate the major dimensions of personal circumstances into the retirement years. Lifestyle planning encourages individuals to project a well-developed vision into retirement by answering a series of key questions:

  1. What are the parameters of my financial resources?
  2. What roles do important family and friends play in meeting my needs?
  3. How might my retirement affect significant others, e.g., spouse, children?
  4. What climate or locale best supports my envisioned retirement lifestyle?
  5. Does part-time work fit into my lifestyle in meeting needs (e.g., productivity)?
  6. How are my support needs likely to evolve over 5, 10, or 15 years of retirement?
  7. What level of activity would I like to maintain across different areas?
  8. Are there things I believe I have missed in life? How can retirement address these?
  9. What are some concrete things I’d like to do? For example, would I like to travel, write, learn, or teach?
  10. What am I grateful for in my life and how can I share that with others?

Retirement can lead to a sense of social isolation, especially when work relationships have been primary or retirement involves a geographical move. Social support systems are critical to most people. The need for social support also changes across the retirement years and requires some significant planning and adjustment. It is generally advisable to begin discussing retirement issues and plans with friends and family before the time to retire actually occurs. Access to family or others who will play a supportive role in retirement is a key dimension of satisfaction; consequently, everyone ought to be involved in the planning process. Certain support, with financial matters for example, may be best handled through professionals. From the perspective of generativity, retirees also need to make plans for contributing to the support of significant others (e.g., spouse, children, siblings). What needs might these individuals have for which the retiree would want to share responsibility?

The substantial increase in the numbers of retirees who return to work, at least part-time, reflects shifting financial demands. Others, though, choose to return to work for a variety of reasons. For example, they may see work as an opportunity to help others; to meet achievement/productivity needs; to stay engaged cognitively and socially; to share knowledge, skills, or experiences; or to gain the intrinsic rewards associated with engagement in work. Any of these objectives can also be met by doing volunteer work as well. The objective is for any work activities to be thoughtfully planned. Retirees returning to work ought to consider both the reason for assuming work responsibility and their specific expectations regarding the work.

It is very normal for retirees with a lifetime of experiences and increased free time to reflect on the meaning of life. The reality of mortality increases with age as well. Retirement can be a great opportunity, not only to reflect on purpose of life issues, accomplishments, and failures, but also to develop and project a vision of the future. Sharing the reflections of retirement with younger generations, staying engaged with social and religious institutions and activities, and engaging in service to others are all easily accessible ways of enhancing the meaningfulness of life in retirement. Of course, these skills, abilities, and motives are established and nurtured earlier in life.


Modern life can be viewed as calling for a predictable series of developmental stages. Donald E. Super, a vocational psychologist, has identified five, each one named for its main activity: growth, exploration, establishment, management, and disengagement. Development through these stages requires a series of transitions: from childhood to school, from school to employment (and/or marriage and parenthood), then to increasingly responsible jobs, and finally to retirement.

Up until the 20th century, the notion of retirement as we now know it hardly existed. Most people simply worked until they could not anymore. But in the early 1900s, certain occupations—teachers, municipal workers, and especially police officers and firefighters— sought mandatory retirement and benefits. In 1935, the U.S. Federal Government passed the Social Security Act, which paid benefits to all workers who had reached the age of 65. (The actual law and its modifications since that time are greatly more complex than this simple statement.) At that time there were about 7 million men and women age 65 and older. In 2000, the number was closer to 35 million. Presently, the population surge of retiring baby boomers will swell this number. Clearly, retirement has become a significant aspect of modern life.

There are a number of issues to be considered in the transition to retirement. Finances typically receive serious attention, since for many people retirement means reduced income. Health, complicated by the simple process of aging, is probably the second-ranking retirement issue. Another issue that is gaining attention is use of time—the opportunity to do whatever one wants: traveling, grandparenting, renewing old hobbies, volunteering, continuing education, and even a new career, among other things.

Counseling Psychologist Nancy Schlossberg has studied retirees and sees coping with the retirement transition as depending on a number of variables: financial security and health, of course, but also the role that employment and careers has played in the life of the individual and his or her family, at what age one retires, whether the individual has liked his or her career, and the degree of planning for retirement, among many others.

More importantly, Schlossberg has found a number of ways of dealing with retirement. Among them is one she calls “continuers,” which is Schlossberg herself, who exchanged her professorship in adult and career development for her present role as a retirement transition facilitator. Another role is the “easy glider,” who doesn’t plan, but simply lets each day of retirement unfold. There are also “adventurers,” who start entirely new activities—a new career, a commitment to a volunteer cause, earning a degree that was not achieved earlier, researching one’s family history, and the like.

Overall, the transition to retirement merits careful thought and attention to possibilities—and opportunity for the counseling profession.


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  3. Goodman, J. E. (2002). Everyone’s money book on retirement planning. Chicago: Dearborn.
  4. Hebeler, H. K. (2001). J. K. Lasser’s your winning retirement plan. New York: Wiley.
  5. Hirsch, D. (2003). Crossroads after 50: Improving choices in work and retirement. New York: Joseph Rowntree Foundation.
  6. Mitchell, O. S. (2002). Innovation in retirement financing. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.
  7. Schlossberg, N. (2004). Retire smart, retire happy: Finding your true path in life. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.
  8. Super, D. E. (1990). A life-span, life-space approach to career development. In D. Brown, L. Brooks, & Associates (Eds.), Career choice and development: Applying contemporary theories to practice (pp. 197-261). San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.
  9. Yolles, R. M., & Yolles, M. (2001). Getting started in retirement planning. New York: Wiley.
  10. Weiss, R. S. (2005). The experience of retirement. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.

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