Riding the Retirement Roller Coaster

How does retirement affect self-esteem in older workers?

Posted Jun 04, 2018

Retirement may be looked upon either as a prolonged holiday or as a rejection, a being thrown on to the scrap-heap.  Simone de Beauvoir

Retirement can mean different things to different people.   

Despite being an important life transition for older adults, the psychological impact of retirement can be devastating for many people, whether because of inadequate finances, the loss of work friendships,  or simply because they have no idea what to do with themselves afterward.   

Not surprisingly, the process of preparing for, reacting to, and adapting to retired life can have a major impact on self-esteem and psychological well-being, something that many retirees have difficulty overcoming.  According to role theory, people who view their career as being central to their sense of identity may experience a major sense of loss when that career is taken away from them.  As well, retirement can mean no longer having regular contact with people at work whom they have come to view as a major source of emotional support.  All of this can make retirement much more traumatic than it needs to be.

But there are also positive aspects of retirement as well.  Along with this loss of purpose that many retirees face, there is also the loss of work-related stress that can make post-retirement life much more carefree.  Older workers facing retirement may also find themselves dealing with greater challenges due to health issues or normal aging that make them less able to keep up with their younger co-workers. This can add to work-related stress, particularly if these older workers are made to feel as if their job skills are obsolete or that younger workers can replace them for less money.

What this boils down to is that retirement can be a positive or a negative experience and this will have an impact on retiree self-esteem as well.  According to research looking at how people handle retirement, there are a wide range of different factors that can determine how successful the transition from working life to post-retirement life will be.  These factors include:

  • the timing of the retirement -  workers who are given the time to prepare for the end of their working lives and to make concrete plans for what comes after usually do better than those who are forced to retire or who were unable to make the needed preparations.  Having time to prepare typically means that workers have the chance to work through the emotional turmoil of retirement and recover their lost self-esteem to some extent. 
  • the context of the retirement -  what are the actual life circumstances faced by the retiree?   How successful the retirement is going to be will depend on the resources that will be available to them afterward, both financial and emotional. People who fear that they will be left in poverty because they don't have the necessary security blanket in place or may develop health problems that can eat through their savings are not going to see retirement as a welcome experience.   
  • gender - up until fairly recently, men have been much more invested in their working lives than women though this has changed significantly in the past few decades.  Even now, research tends to show that men are more likely than women to experience a drop in self-esteem  after retirement
  • age -  though 65 is usually seen as the optimum age for retiring, many may choose to retire earlier or later depending on life circumstances and finances.  For people being forced to retire due to mandatory retirement though, self-esteem often drops due to retirees feeling obsolete or unwanted.
  • personality - past research has linked changes in self-esteem following retirement to key personality traits such as Extraversion, Openness, Agreeableness, or Conscientiousness (a.k.a. the Big Five). These different traits can help retirees cope better with retirement depending on personal circumstances.
  • financial hardship - it's no surprise that successful retirement depends on the amount of financial stability you might have.  Retirees who have to scrape by on minimal pensions and/or low-wage jobs to make ends meet are going to see a sharp drop in self-esteem once they stop working.  
  • volunteering - not only does volunteering provide retirees a chance to give back to their communities, but it can also give them a sense of purpose that can make retirement much more bearable. Working as volunteers also means becoming part of an extended social network that can offset the loss of work friends.
  • health and physical activity - while growing older invariably means developing new health problems, most retirees can add years to their lives by staying physically active. This can include a regular exercise routine, developing new hobbies such as hiking or yoga, or maintaining the same physical routine in retirement that many people engage in during their working lives.  
  • social integration - having stable social networks can be an essential part of healthy self-esteem following retirement. Actively networking with friends and family can often help retirees avoid the kind of isolation that can undermine self-esteem in many older people.

A new research study published in the journal Psychology and Aging examined the role that these different factors can play as people make the transition to retirement.  Wiebke Bleidorn and Ted Schwaba of the University of California, Davis used data taken from the Longitudinal Internet Studies for the Social Studies (LISS) to examine changes in self-esteem in adults as they retire.   Beginning in 2008, the LISS involves administering yearly Internet surveys to thousands of Dutch households on a range of different topics.   

For the purpose of their study,Bleidorn and Schwaba focused on the 690 participants who reported that they stopped working at some point during the 2008-2016 period covered by the LISS.  The participants ranged in age from 51 to 81.   As a comparison group, 515 LISS participants were selected who reported being employed at all times were matched to the first sample in terms of demographics as well as those qualities reflecting their propensity to retirement.  

All participants completed comprehensive surveys measuring self-esteem, demographic factors, time spent volunteering, subjective health, physical activity levels, social connectedness, financial hardship, as well as a test measuring the Big Five personality traits (openness to experience, conscientiousness, extraversion, agreeableness, and emotional stability).  

In looking at the results of the study, the researchers found that, while there were significant differences among workers, before and after retirement,  most workers a significant drop in self-esteem during the five years approaching retirement.  But this drop in self-esteem came to a halt during the month of retirement itself, while the five-year period following retirement showed stable levels of self-esteem.   

When compared to non-retirees in the same age group, people in the same age range who don't retire also show a drop in self-esteem suggesting that this may be a normal trend in older workers.  This decreasing self-esteem  appears to reflect the increased stress and drop in perceived value t often reported by older workers which can impact their overall sense of well-being.  While retirement isn't always an option for many older workers, it does appear to provide emotional relief from this late-career strain as well as giving retirees new opportunities to find more meaningful outlets for their activities and allowing more time to be with family members.   

As expected, retirees who scored highly on the Big Five personality traits also had higher levels of self-esteem on retirement, something that has already been seen in previous studies.  Surprisingly though, other factors such as gender, age, financial hardship, physical activity, and subjective health didn't appear to be strongly linked to changes in self-esteem before or after retirement.  

Still, as Bleidorn and Schwaba point out in their conclusion, there are important differences among retirees depending on their actual life circumstances.  While retirement appears to provide relief from job stress for most workers, others may find themselves experiencing significantly reduced self-esteem and psychological well-being after they stop working. This is especially true for people who simply can't afford to retire due to lacking the kind of savings or pension that can allow them to live comfortably or who don't have a family network in place to help them adjust to post-retirement life.   

While more research is definitely needed, studies such as this one are important since they look at changes in self-esteem that occur before, during, and after retirement.  While we are beginning to give more attention to the importance of retirement planning for many people, we still need to recognize how important major life events such as retirement can be and what they can mean for self-esteem. Teaching retirees how to live meaningful lives even after their working careers end may be essential in helping them put off physical decline for as long as possible.  

References

Bleidorn, W., & Schwaba, T. (2018). Retirement is associated with change in self-esteem. Psychology and Aging. Advance online publication. http://dx.doi.org/10.1037/pag0000253

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