When Is Retirement a Blessing? And When Is It a Curse?


  • People have widely divergent expectations about what retirement will be like.
  • Retirement has often been linked with a decreased sense of purpose in life, but may also result in greater happiness and life satisfaction.
  • People with lower socioeconomic status and less satisfying jobs are most likely to see an increase in sense of purpose following retirement.

I have not yet retired, but most people my age have. This means that over the past decade or so I have had countless conversations with friends and colleagues about the pros and cons of retirement at different ages, and I have been struck by the highly divergent expectations and outcomes among my acquaintances throughout this seismic change in their life status.

On the one hand, I have known some who were so giddy at the prospect of being released from the stress and responsibilities of the job that they found it incomprehensible that there could be a downside to retirement.

They dreamed of long-postponed exotic travel and playing as much golf as possible, but found that after a couple of trips and a month of playing golf every day, life lapsed into the “same-old, same-old” and became a bit tedious.

On the other hand, I have known others who approached retirement with dread, unsure of how they would fill the days and who they would be if they weren’t showing up at work every day. Happily, many of these individuals discovered new friends and talents and had a richer and fuller life in retirement than they had ever imagined possible.

Undeniably, work provides structure, a sense of belonging, and social interaction. These are all related to greater life satisfaction. But work can also wear you out and drag you down. How to predict how well retirement will work out for any given individual?

What Does the Research Say About Retirement?

Most popular press analyses of retirement focus on its financial costs and benefits, and retiring before you are financially able to handle it is unlikely to lead to a positive experience.

However, financial considerations aside, the scientific evidence about the benefits of retirement is a bit murky. Many studies have shown that retirement results in a diminished sense of purpose in life and that delaying retirement may help ward off dementia.

Perversely, other studies have shown that even as a sense of purpose declines, happiness, health, and life satisfaction can increase, especially if one is retiring from an unpleasant job or because of health issues.

A penetrating look at the outcomes of retirement can be found in a recently published study by Ayse Yemiscigil and her colleagues at Harvard and the University of Warwick. They recruited a nationally representative sample of 8,113 American adults over the age of 55 from an ongoing longitudinal study of aging in the United States.

The participants filled out questionnaires to assess the extent to which they had goals that gave direction and meaning to their lives, their retirement status— completely retired, partially retired, not at all retired—and a variety of other measures such as gender, marital status, income, occupation, and job satisfaction.

Yemiscigil’s study confirmed that sense of purpose generally declined with age, but actually showed an uptick when people reached the traditional U.S. retirement ages of 62 and 66.

This was driven by individuals who had retired early, who as a group were less likely to have high socioeconomic status and also less likely to have been working in jobs that they had found to be satisfying.

If you are working at an unpleasant job that does not supply you with a strong sense of purpose, retirement may indeed free you to reorient your life in a more meaningful direction.

The take-home message is that your retirement experience will result from how the collision between what you are retiring “from” and what you are retiring “to” plays out, and this will ultimately turn out differently for each of us.

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