For many individuals, retirement is a lifestyle that they hope to achieve following a lifetime of labor. Women's retirement is a relatively recent concept with increased relevance due to the large number of working women who are reaching retirement age (Wang, 2013). Health, as it relates to the transition to retirement, is a vital area for nurses to examine. Retirement's influence on women's health is largely unexplored as a transition separate from aging. Retirement is a relevant part of aging for many women in their later lives and necessitates adapting to many physiological, mental, and social changes (Lips & Hastings, 2012). The process of retiring can be a fluid process, and not necessarily unidirectional. Post-retirement, individuals may reassess their retirement decisions, formulate new goals, implement changes, and reevaluate their retired lives to achieve a successful retirement. This process should be familiar to nurses as it parallels the nursing process.
In the United States, women retire at an average age of 62 years (Munnell, 2015). Women's retirement is unique and does not necessarily follow the same trajectory as men's retirement. Social expectations, including child-bearing and caregiving responsibilities, have a notable impact on the decision to retire (Lips & Hastings, 2012). In the United States and many other nations, women are the sole or contributing household wage earners (Stamarski & Son Hing, 2015). Currently, women earn 83% of what men earn and, more often than men, women work in part-time employment (63.9% compared to 36.1%), which does not allow for retirement plan participation or benefits (U.S. Department of Labor, 2016). Women are more likely than men to leave the workforce over longer periods of time for child-bearing, to raise children, and care for grandchildren and/or ailing parents (Lips & Hastings, 2012). Social Security benefits paid during retirement are directly calculated by work history and earned credits; hence, years of reduced work hours significantly impact retirement benefits. In 2015, the average annual Social Security retirement benefit for men was $18,000 compared to $14,184 for women (AARP, 2017). This difference in Social Security benefits likely reflects women's overall lower earned wages and greater discontinuity of work compared to men due to gender-traditional social obligations and other responsibilities (AARP, 2017). Of older unmarried women who receive Social Security benefits, approximately one half depend on these benefits for ≥90% of their income (AARP, 2017).
Retirement embodies the elements of a key transition in later adulthood (Duberley, Carmichael, & Szmigin, 2014). Specifically, retirement represents change. Change, whether good or bad, is a life stressor. Holmes and Rahe (1967) developed The Social Readjustment Rating Scale (SRRS) to help recognize the principle stressful events in one's life. Despite some criticism for the SRRS since its creation, the instrument remains widely used and cited in research on stressful life events (Blasco-Fontecilla et al., 2012; Rios, Hjemdal, Uribe, & Corveleyn, 2014). Retirement from work is ranked 10th on the SRRS. Social isolation and feelings of non-productivity and uselessness are reported as stemming from women's retirement or, conversely, a renewed sense of purpose may emerge (Lips & Hastings, 2012). Many women are pulled toward retirement due to caregiver responsibilities that may be viewed as either an opportunity or a burden (Bevans & Sternberg, 2012). Women's traditional roles as caregiver and homemaker and men's traditional role as wage earner may account for the gender differences in retirement decision making (Lips & Hastings, 2012; Sherry, Tomlinson, Loe, Johnston, & Feeney, 2017) and self-identification post-retirement (Silver, 2016).
Later life health is important for positive aging (Phillips & Ferguson, 2013) and a successful retirement (Forster & Morris, 2012). Unplanned or unanticipated retirement may position an individual in poverty or near-poverty, with little chance of returning to employment. Financial instability due to early retirement may lead to health instability for some aging women (Lips & Hastings, 2012). There is limited research and knowledge regarding women's perspectives of retirement and associated impact that retirement may have on health.
The purpose of the current study was to explore women's perceptions of retirement with the goals of better understanding important factors for successful retirement transitioning and to inform nurses regarding how to assist clients who are anticipating or engaging in the retirement transition.
The current study was guided by Meleis' (2015) Transitions Theory, which theorizes that all transitions result from change and in change. Components of the theory include change triggers, properties, conditions, and patterns of response, including processes and outcomes. The theoretical components assist in understanding transitional experiences, while explaining how and when preventive and therapeutic interventions might best facilitate healthy transitions. Change triggers are life changes that can expose individuals to increased illness risks and properties, and conditions help frame the transition. Properties of the transition may include time span, process, disconnectedness, awareness, and critical points. Transitional conditions may be at different levels, including personal, community, societal, or global (Meleis, 2015).
Multiple points of vulnerability may be present throughout the transitional process, with coping processes helping determine the transitional response patterns. Process response patterns identified by Meleis (2015) include individual engagement, becoming situated, seeking and receiving support, and acquiring confidence. Outcome response patterns include mastery, identity, resourcefulness, healthy interactions, and perceived well-being (Meleis, 2015).
Nurses consistently strive to assist individuals in healthy transitioning, including mobilizing family and community resources. As a middle range theory, Transitions Theory has been used as a framework in research with refugee women experiencing cultural transition (Baird, 2012), interdisciplinary health care team transition programs led by nurses (Betz, Smith, Van Speybroeck, Hernandez, & Jacobs, 2016), retiring Swedish older adults (Djukanovic & Peterson, 2016), and many other populations. In the current study, the theoretical concepts of change triggers and patterns of responses, as processes or outcomes, were used. Retirement was viewed as a change trigger occurring from different circumstances. Developmental, situational, health/illness, and organizational change triggers all relate directly to individuals transitioning to retirement. Patterns of response to the change trigger of retirement were viewed as processes or outcomes as described by participants (Figure 1).
Women's retirement transition.
The current study used written responses to open-ended questions regarding perceptions of retirement. This study was part of a larger mixed methods study. The larger study's quantitative portion measured physical function, quality of life, self-rated health, functional status, and social support with the purpose of exploring health outcomes in retired women. The planning of the larger mixed methods study considered earlier feasibility study data that indicated a desire for some women to further share their experiences and stories regarding their retirement. Participants were instructed that all responses on the survey to closed- and open-ended questions were voluntary and partial responses were allowed. Throughout the current study, retirement was defined by two primary attributes: (a) retirement is a transitional period surrounding, stopping, or changing full or part-time, paid or unpaid employment status; and (b) retirement occurs at a time when an individual self-identifies as being retired (Wang, 2013). Institutional Review Board approval was received prior to study initiation.
Recruiting and Sample
Women were recruited using convenience sampling from senior and community settings within five southeastern U.S. states (North Carolina, Georgia, Florida, Arkansas, and Louisiana). Inclusion criteria were: female gender; age ≥55 years; retired part- or full-time from working outside the home or from a home-based business; currently living in a household within a southeastern U.S. state; able to read and speak English; and oriented to time, place, and person. Exclusion criteria for this study included living in a nursing home, group home, or institution.
Each participant was given a $10 store card for participating in the study. A convenience sample of 170 women was recruited, with each participant responding to at least one of the two open-ended questions.
Data Collection and Analysis
Data were collected at a location arranged by community leaders or suggested by participants and included participant homes, churches, libraries, senior centers, and other organizational facilities. A private and quiet location was agreed on by participants and researchers. The consent form and pencil-and-paper questionnaire were administered to participants. The principal investigator (PI; F.H.S.) was present in the same room as participants to answer questions. Trained lay community researchers assisted in administering the questionnaire.
Demographics were collected, including age, age at retirement, race/ethnicity, marital status, living situation, educational level, retirement type, retirement status, and retirement timing (Table 1). Educational levels were requested from participants as a proxy for socioeconomic status. Retirement status was operationalized as retired part-time (i.e., working ≤20 hours per week outside the home for pay) or retired full-time (i.e., not working outside the home for pay). Retirement type was considered voluntary (i.e., left on one's own volition) or forced (i.e., involuntary, unplanned, or pressured to retire for any reason). Retirement timing denotes one's age when one leaves the labor force and was operationalized in this study as early (prior to age 65) or on-time and later (after age 65). Following completion of the quantitative portion of the larger study, women were given the opportunity to share their perceptions of retirement through written responses to open-ended questions. Questions included: “What are your thoughts about retirement now?” and “Is there anything else you would like to share about your retirement experience?”
Participant Characteristics (N = 170)
Descriptive statistical analyses were conducted on the demographic data using SPSS version 24. Statistical significance was set at p = 0.05. Data were double entered with a <1% data entry error rate. Missing value patterns were assessed and examined. For age of retirement, analysis was run with and without an extreme outlier with a very early age of retirement. There was no significant difference in the analyses; therefore, the extreme outlier for age of retirement was retained in the final analysis. There were relatively few missing demographic data. Missing data were managed using imputation, including mean substitution.
Women's written responses on their perceptions of retirement were analyzed independently by two researchers (F.H.S., D.S.) during the first round using basic content analysis. Using content analysis methods established by Sandelowski (2002), data were coded to examine participants' feelings and attitudes toward retirement and highlight concerns and positive aspects of retirement. Code and theme creation occurred inductively from data and deductively from variables identified using the conceptual model. Identified codes were further explored using the conceptual framework's patterns of response as assigned processes and outcomes and themes were identified. The separate analyses were subsequently compared during the second round of analyses and agreed on by both researchers, using informational redundancy and reflexivity to enhance reliability of findings.
Most participants were White, unmarried, educated at a high school level or higher, and lived alone. Participants expressed their perceptions of retirement as evaluations of successful or unsuccessful transitioning. Many evaluations were interpreted as an ongoing or completed transitional process or a transitional outcome, aligning with Meleis' Transitions Theory. Final themes were linked to conceptual patterns of response (processes or outcomes).
Participants (N = 158) shared their views of retirement, with content analysis revealing 47 initial codes from responses to the question “What are your thoughts about retirement now?” Following initial analysis, data reduction occurred to decrease redundancy, resulting in 18 core variables. Core variables supporting the development of themes included: love it, satisfied, happy, freedom, thankful, relief, challenge, adjusting, irrelevant, self-identification, unhappy, money, time, regrets, resources, busy, miss, and involved. Data interpretation and further refining of the basic core variables resulted in six themes: Love It/Happy (56.3%); Unhappy/Regrets (23.4%); So Much Time, So Little (money, resources, etc.) (6.3%); Searching (6.3%); Busy (4.4%); and Relief/Freedom (3.3%).
Three themes (So Much Time, So Little [money, resources, etc.], Searching, and Busy) describe the processes of deciding how to spend one's time, searching for what to do and for one's identity, and keeping busy during retirement. The themes align with the conceptual processes of engaging or seeking and receiving support. For example, self-identification (coded under Searching) was acknowledged as a concern for some women:
“The issue of occasionally feeling ‘professionally irrelevant’ is a challenge.”
Many participants described their post-retirement lives as Busy, with this code designated as a transitional process of engaging:
“I am busy every day and can usually plan activities to keep me occupied.”
The remaining three themes (Love It/Happy, Unhappy/Regrets, and Relief/Freedom) define participants' self-evaluated transitional outcomes to the change trigger of retirement. The themes relate to the theoretical transition outcomes of healthy interaction or perceived well-being (Table 2).
Women's Perceptions of Retirement
Participants were asked the question “Anything else you would like to share about your retirement experience?” Eighty-three women provided responses, with identification of 31 initial codes through content analysis. Eighteen core variables remained following analysis to reduce code redundancy and included: satisfying, attitude, resources, create, expectations, bloom, plan, relaxing, fixed income, travel, own pace, balance, learning, time, flexibility, volunteer, give, and do something you like. Further analysis of the basic core variables yielded four themes: Giving: For Me and Thee (32.5%); Adequate Resources (27.7%); Creating Your Own Structure (20.5%); and Positive Attitude (19.3%).
The four themes were identified as transition patterns of response processes or outcomes. One theme (Creating Your Own Structure) related to the conceptual transition process of acquiring confidence. Participants reported attaining feelings of increased confidence with the new life they had created and, as a result, wanted to offer supportive advice for pre-retirees:
“Spend more time on what blooms you, spend less time on what detracts you from your satisfaction.”
Three themes (Giving: For Me and Thee, Adequate Resources, and Positive Attitude) describe participants' self-evaluated outcomes to the transitional change trigger of retirement. These themes are associated with conceptual transition outcomes of either perceived well-being or resourcefulness. The idea of giving to others and giving to oneself was an outcome with significance to retired women:
“I make the young children pillows.”
“Love being able to explore things I wouldn't otherwise have had the time.”
Having adequate resources was an important transitional outcome concern for many women in the current study. Some women focused their energies on striving to meet basic physiological needs of food and safety:
“I'd like to go shopping more for food.”
Other participants expressed additional concerns for their post-retirement abilities to achieve psychological needs of social belonging, personal accomplishment, and self-esteem:
“I get so depressed because I had to retire. I've been working since I was 14.”
A third group of women in this study reported feeling situated in a transitional phase lying somewhere between women striving for self-fulfillment and those struggling with day-to-day essentials:
“I sometimes wish that I was still working. I would feel better.”
Finally, having a positive attitude was described as a vital outcome to retirement and necessary for a successful retirement transition (Table 3).
Women's Retirement Experiences
The current study adds to the knowledge of important retirement transition processes and outcomes for women. Results suggest important patterns of response for women's successful retirement that may influence overall health, including perceived well-being; healthy interaction with others'; engaging, seeking, and finding support as a means of resourcefulness; and acquiring confidence. With a retirement age of approximately 61 years, the current study sample was similar to the U.S. national average age of women's retirement of 62 years (Munnell, 2015). The average length of retirement for women in the United States is 18 years (Bee & Mitchell, 2016). The average length of retirement for participants in the current study was 12 years; this shorter retirement time may be due to the slightly younger group of women retirees in this study compared to the national average.
The range of themes identified from participant responses validates the need for nurses to assess women during the transition to retirement. All life changes are crises and, depending on how one handles them, crises can result in positive or negative outcomes. All transitions are crises with commonalities that include unfamiliar life disruptions that become critical life milestones or processes where individuals and family units may need nursing guidance/facilitation to achieve a positive outcome. Retirement outcomes are often positive when retirement perception and retirement reality are congruent. Ultimately, a certain degree of flexibility is essential because unexpected life occurrences will force some degree of continued transitioning.
Women's shared retirement experiences included the theme Creating Your Own Structure as a way for retirees to plan and prepare for their new situations, including how to manage one's time and seek opportunities. Women's explorations of new freedoms and options post-retirement, including career changes and volunteerism, is well-supported in the literature (Byles et al., 2013; Seaman, 2012). In the current study, many women indicated a desire to spend their time giving back to society as part of their personal journey toward self-fulfillment/self-actualization.
Compared to men, women have greater economic concerns due to increased longevity and a lifetime of lower earnings related to many factors, including caregiver responsibilities (Lips & Hastings, 2012). As separate yet interconnected patterns of response, the process of figuring out how to spend one's time (i.e., So Much Time, So Little [money, resources, etc.]) without having adequate resources as a transitional outcome was a prominent feature in the data. Although many participants referred to the importance of monetary resources (e.g., linking having money to the ability to engage in activities such as travel), others raised concern for social support as a resource. Several responses indicated that women who may be socially active with coworkers while still working may not continue these friendships, for one reason or another, post-retirement. Results suggest the need to diversify social resources to ensure adequate support during the transition to retirement, including adequate support from family and friends outside of the workplace to help compensate for social support that may be missing or waning.
Individuals who were still searching for their new role, identity, lifestyle, or purpose were identified as describing the conceptual process of seeking and finding support. For many women who attempt to pack so many activities into a 24-hour period, time may be a luxury; however, for someone who has no discernible purpose or idea of how to use that same amount of time, time can become a large void to fill. Lytle, Clancy, Foley, and Cotter (2015) described this phenomenon for retirees, suggesting the need to plan retirement with a goal for fulfillment, rather than just keeping busy. Older adults, in alignment with U.S. culture, have expressed value in keeping busy (Yen, Shim, Martinez, & Barker, 2012); yet, many older adults maintain that being productive and finding meaning may be more important than keeping busy (Wang, Hall, & Waters, 2014).
Many women in the current study indicated their acute awareness of key issues facing them during and after retirement, but with varied retirement decisions and adaptations to these decisions. Several concerns with the decision-making process were described by participants. Socially acceptable expectations, or trying to live up to these, comprised a topic of concern for women. Djukanovic and Peterson (2016) defined one theme for retirement transition as becoming aware of in men and women, with planning for retirement as a subtheme. The concerns described by women in the current study appeared to factor substantially into planning for the retirement process and influenced perceived well-being. Perceived well-being, as a conceptual outcome of the retirement transition, was described by the interpreted themes Relief/Freedom and Positive Attitude.
The current study has some limitations. Data collection was limited to select southeastern U.S. states using a cross-sectional design and convenience sampling. Many study participants were active members of senior centers and church groups; therefore, participants were more likely to be older adults with higher than average activity levels. Mean age of participants was 73 years, and racial and ethnic minorities accounted for only one third of participants. Perceptions of non-White women retirees and women experiencing longer retirement periods may be different than those reported in the current study.
Retirement can span two or more decades, with its own intrinsic peaks and valleys. Retirement is another phase of life; some women continue to work part-time or wish they were still working part-time, primarily for structure, social stimulation, or financial need. The current study's results emphasize the importance of planning and preparing, as best as one can, for a satisfying and successful retirement. Specific assistance and planning for women during and after retirement is essential for this life transition to be a positive experience and to decrease health-related situations, such as hospitalization, physical and social inactivity, decreased self-worth, loneliness, and depression. Because an individual's transitional response to retirement can be either effective or ineffective, it appears reasonable for nurses to promote inclusion of family and multidisciplinary colleagues in the retirement planning process. The unexpected, however, can occur. The ability to adapt to constant personal and situational change may assist older women in navigating the retirement transition.
Approximately one half of women in this study live alone. Although some literature supports the association of living alone and negative outcomes, such as loneliness, social isolation (Pantell et al., 2013), and depression (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 2013), there is some evidence of great variability among individual perceptions of living alone (Eshbaugh, 2008). Regardless of the individual's perception of living alone, support for older women as a population who often live alone needs to consider safety as a priority concern.
Meleis (2015) emphasizes that critical life events trigger personal and familial transitions, which can result in greater stability when navigated successfully. Nurses' supportive situational involvement can facilitate successful navigation of critical life events. Implications for practice include carefully assessing for health changes in women who are transitioning to retirement, including assessing for individual changes related to roles, resources, socialization, apprehension, or possibly, fear. Nurses should promote helpful coping skills and provide educational and therapeutic resources to women during the retirement transition. Addressing health changes during the retirement transition may assist women in maintaining independence and increasing quality of life.
This study highlights a clear need for research examining the retirement perceptions of women of minority races and/or ethnicities. Women of non-White races and cultures may have different experiences compared to White women. These potentially unique perspectives are poorly understood and may impact stress and health during the transition to retirement.
The development of nurse-led educational programs aimed at promoting health and well-being in retirement may benefit women during retirement planning. These community-based educational interventions could be presented in workplaces and include practical strategies to manage stress and transitional changes. Nurses are ideally situated to assist women with health-promoting education during the retirement transition.
Current retirement perspectives are more difficult to change (i.e., more solidified) than when one is still in the planning stages of retirement when/where adjustments are probably more fluid. Women who are successfully transitioning in retirement may likely continue to do so based on positive connectedness with others and awareness of critical points. For women whose retirement transition is not going well and for those who have unmet health, financial, and social needs, returning to the work environment may not be an option and it is unlikely that their future retirement perspectives will change for the better.
Themes inferred from participant responses highlight areas of importance to retired women, including the ideas of time, purpose, and continued relevance. The release of pressure from the work environment, when coinciding with a positive attitude toward change as a natural life progression, appears to result in greater success in transitioning to the change trigger of retirement. Women currently experiencing retirement are likely to encounter unexpected events requiring transitioning to more changes as their retirement period progresses. Positive framing, while taking stock of and gathering one's social and financial resources, assists in the retirement transition. A woman's ability to create, maintain, and revise her life structure as needed is a strong asset in successful retirement transitioning. An optimal retirement scenario constructed from participants' own words points toward a cost-effective retirement environment with social and physical opportunities that allow older women to continue making meaningful contributions within their larger community.
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Participant Characteristics (N = 170)
|Characteristic||Mean (SD) (Range)|
|Age (years)||72.7 (7.8) (55 to 91)|
|Age at retirement (years)||60.7 (8.1) (35 to 85)|
| White/Caucasian||112 (65.9)|
| Black/African American||53 (31.2)|
| Hispanic||1 (0.6)|
| Other||1 (0.6)|
| Married||62 (36.5)|
| Widowed||56 (32.9)|
| Divorced||32 (18.8)|
| Single||20 (11.8)|
| Did not graduate from high school||23 (13.6)|
| High school diploma (or GED)||42 (24.9)|
| Attended some college||66 (39.1)|
| Four-year college or more||38 (22.5)|
| Yes||99 (58.2)|
| No||71 (41.8)|
| North Carolina||120 (71.4)|
| Florida||17 (10.1)|
| Louisiana||9 (5.4)|
| Virginia||8 (4.8)|
| Arkansas||7 (4.2)|
| Georgia||7 (4.2)|
| Retired full-time||162 (95.3)|
| Retired, but working part-time||6 (3.5)|
| Retired early (age ≤64 years)||121 (71.2)|
| Retired on-time (≥65 years)||49 (28.8)|
| Voluntary||124 (72.9)|
| Forced||44 (25.9)|
Women's Perceptions of Retirement
|Codes and Exemplars||Patterns of Response (Transitions Theory)|
|Love it/Happy||Outcome: Healthy interaction|
| “Love not being scheduled but also require some schedule in my life. That's why yoga at 6 a.m. is a great get-out-of-bed motivation. Friends help here.”|
| “I am enjoying my retirement very much. I am able to do things that I could not do when I worked (keep grandchildren, volunteer, etc.).”|
| “I have enjoyed my life. As a woman, I would like to see more community activities for women, which would enrich emotionally, mentally, and physically.”|
|Unhappy/Regrets||Outcome: Perceived well-being (negative)|
| “I miss the social aspect of working.”|
| “I didn't voluntarily retire. My memory changes after open-heart surgery affected my memory so much, I filed for and won disability. I loved my work life (in medical field!) and miss it still after 20+ years.”|
| “Having all the time in the world isn't that great unless you have all of the money in the world, or at least enough to cover expenses with a little left over.”|
|So Much Time, So Little (money, resources, etc.)||Process: Engaging|
| “Retirement offers an opportunity to ‘relax’ and do things at a leisurely pace. If [money] was not an issue it would be more fun.”|
| “If I was financially secure it would be wonderful and would be able to travel.”|
|Searching||Process: Seeking and receiving support|
| “I am still trying to figure out how to make the most of my time. I feel a need to help people, and I do that to a certain extent, but I want to make a bigger contribution. I haven't figured out the best way for me to do that.”|
| “Looking for a way to keep myself busy and feeling fulfilled.”|
| “I am as busy now as when I was working. Now I do what I want to do.”|
| “It has opened up a whole new life for me. I have more time for friends and family. I wonder how did I ever have time to work?”|
|Relief/Freedom||Outcome: Perceived well-being|
| “I thoroughly enjoy retirement, particularly the freedom.”|
| “Many pressures have fallen a way.”|
Women's Retirement Experiences
|Codes and Exemplars||Patterns of Response (Transitions Theory)|
|Giving: For Me and Thee||Outcome: Resourcefulness (positive)|
| “Important to live in a location and community that gives support to one another. We do.”|
| “Join in with group, just enjoy your life by sharing and caring for others. Put God first in your life.”|
| “It is much easier to balance the demands of life without the tight work demands on my schedule. It remains a luxury to get up slowly each day at my own pace.”|
|Adequate Resources||Outcome: Resourcefulness (negative)|
| “Do not have money (extra) for a lot of things I like doing and places I like to go.”|
| “The dream of vacationing and relaxing is a false idea. I have developed Parkinson's and am having trouble.”|
|Creating Your Own Structure||Process: Acquiring confidence|
| “Make sure you have a plan. Also, talk to your spouse in detail about being home together 24/7.”|
| “I am just now phasing into what my day to day will be.”|
| “Like many things in life, what you anticipate/expect may be very different than your reality.”|
|Positive Attitude||Outcome: Perceived well-being|
| “After 60 years of a happy marriage I miss my husband very much, but I found a way to keep busy and happy due to my good health and faith in God who loves me.”|
| “I love having a personal more satisfying life.”|