Whether it’s just around the corner or a few years off yet, retirement is an important milestone. Some may be looking forward to it, spurred on by the image of sipping a noon cocktail on a Caribbean beach. For others, the thought of retirement is something that isn’t too appealing; particularly for those who love their work and the purpose it gives them. Either way, retirement warrants a good deal of consideration and preparation beforehand. It is, after all, a transition between two significant stages of life. Unsurprisingly, the way in which we retire therefore has an important impact on our psychological wellbeing.
Typically, there are three general patterns people demonstrate in response to their retirement. These patterns track wellbeing from the point of retirement to a few years in the future.
1. Maintaining pattern: Approximately 70% of people experience this response, and have usually engaged in retirement planning beforehand. This is considered the most desirable outcome, as psychological wellbeing remains stable and consistent from the point of retirement. This pattern suggests a successful and positive transition from working life to retirement.
2. U-shape pattern: Approximately 25% of people experience this response, usually including people who retired sooner than they had expected. The point of retirement causes a steady decline over time in psychological wellbeing and objective health. After some time, this decline tends to level out, before gradually recovering, plotting a “u” shape. People who exhibit this pattern tend to experience this transition as increasingly challenging for the first one or two years, before eventually acclimatising to their new stage of life.
3. Recovering pattern: Approximately 5% of people experience this response, usually including those who held high-stress, physically demanding jobs. Retirement causes an immediate, significant and detrimental drop in psychological wellbeing. From this point, it gradually recovers at a stable and consistent rate (again, perhaps to the point where wellbeing once was). Though only one in 20 may demonstrate this response pattern, it is potentially harmful. While some indeed manage to recover in terms of their psychological wellbeing, this is not the case for everyone.
Roughly 25% of people, then, are negatively affected by retirement (at least in the initial few years). So what exactly is going on? The primary underlying reason for unsatisfactory retirement transitions relates to our identity or role. Many people forge their identity over the course of their career, associating themselves strongly with their organisation or team and developing a strong personal connection to their work. As such, their work not only serves as a critical purpose in life, but it shapes perceptions of their own identity and role in society. When retirement happens suddenly or without preparation, this identity or role is instantly stripped away, leaving many people feeling bereft of purpose and status.
Crucially, those who thoroughly plan ahead increase their likelihood of a successful retirement transition. In fact, not only does thorough retirement planning safeguard psychological wellbeing (and objective health), but it also predicts higher life satisfaction in the future and assuages the negative effects of identity or role loss. Different people may have different plans, though there is one consistently popular and highly effective strategy that secures psychological wellbeing, life satisfaction and an all-round successful transition to retirement: engaging in bridge employment.
Bridge employment is a position of work that a retiree takes on at the end of a full-time career, with the aim of easing the transition between full-time employment and complete retirement. This may include a part-time job, self-employment, or a temporary position in work that is either related or unrelated to one’s full-time work or career. For example, a mathematics teacher may work as a private tutor two days per week, or an executive may step down into a mentoring role for promising young leaders. By engaging in bridge employment, people are better able to protect their roles and identities, and have more control in how they change in adjusting to retirement. Bridge employment has been shown to be most beneficial for one’s mental health and physical health if that bridge employment is directly related to their full-time work or career.
Retirement may be near or far depending on where we’re at in our career, however it’s certainly an event worth serious consideration as the years that follow may be shaped by our mental and physical condition. According to research, retirement planning and bridge employment may be two activities that may prove essential in protecting our wellbeing, rendering our retirement transition and years ahead much more enjoyable.