How do you imagine your retirement?
If you’re like most people, you envision an active engagement with life: playing sports and pursuing hobbies, spending time with your family and friends, volunteering, taking active roles in political or religious groups, and involving yourself in professional organizations. Your retirement dream is that you’ll do everything you always wanted but never had time to do when you were working.
Then again, if you’re like most people, your dream has a shadow side. If, like many of us, you find and build some of your closest relationships at work, you wonder if those relationships will endure when you retire. And if they don’t endure, will retirement gradually erode and destroy your social connections? With declining health, some cherished activities (such as physically demanding sports) might become less appealing, or even possible, making retirement a time of less—not more—social engagement. When you think about this possibility at all, it is usually with a measure of dread.
Does retirement mean more or less social engagement?
What does the evidence say? In a recent study published in the European Journal of Ageing, my coauthors and I investigated this question. We used data from GAZEL, a longitudinal study (1989–2007)of more than 10,000 French utility workers. We focused only on those who had retired between 1992and 2004; they ranged in age (as of 2004) from 51–65. To track their patterns of social engagement in the years immediately before and after retirement, we used three measures: activity in social organizations, number of close friends, and number of close family members. We wanted to know the extent to which these measures increased or decreased over a relatively long period. Did people on the whole have more close friends before or after retirement? Did they spend more or less time on socially engaging activities? Did they have more or fewer close family members?
We found no single direction of change. About a third increased their level of social participation; another third maintained their preretirement level of social participation; and another third decreased their level of social participation. Retirement itself had no direct effect on social engagement in our study. Instead, we found that what “third” a person ended up in during retirement was influenced by what had occurred before retirement officially began. For instance, people who had lower-status jobs before they retired were more likely to be less socially engaged as their retirement progressed than those with higher-status jobs. And these patterns of social engagement tended to persist and even intensify over time, with the potential to create widening inequality in social engagement and (because social engagement affects health status) eventually in health and well-being.
This finding suggests that organizations and programs aiming to improve social participation at older ages should target workers well before they actually retire. People tend to perpetuate and magnify in retirement the degree of social participation they practiced during their preretirement years. For us as individuals, knowing that our levels of social engagement before retirement tend to be carried forward and magnified during the retirement years can be a powerful motivator for us to continually create and nourish those connections throughout our adult lives. When you think about what third you will be in on the social engagement scale during your retirement years, keep in mind that when it comes to building social engagement, there’s no time like the present.