Transitioning to Retirement: The Issue of Social Relationships


March 21, 2013 by Jean

Many new retirees discover just how much of their social life has been built around workplace relationships, and they also discover that those relationships can be difficult to maintain after retirement. Sometimes this can lead to the problem of social isolation.

In his book on The Experience of Retirement (ILR Press, 2005), sociologist Robert Weiss notes that retirees who live alone are at particular risk of social isolation. That would be me; I have lived alone for most of my adult life. In addition, I don’t have children, which means that I don’t have any “built in” relationships to provide regular outlets for social interaction. Instead, I depend for emotional and social support on less “automatic” relationships with friends. These relationships can be very rich, but they require more intentional effort to maintain.

In my own case, an extra complication is that I have always had high needs for solitude. As a child growing up in a busy, crowded household, I sought opportunities to spend time alone, usually outdoors. In adulthood, this translated into a love of hiking, camping, and traveling alone. When I first found myself living alone in my early twenties (after never even having had a room of my own!), I felt as though I had died and gone to heaven. I can feel perfectly happy going days at a time without contact with anyone else. The positive side of this is that a level of interaction that might feel to some like social isolation makes me feel happy. The problem is that my treasured solitude can become a kind of inertia; the longer I go without contact with others, the more difficult I find it to initiate that contact. It would be all too easy for me to become a hermit, and the research indicates that would not be a healthy choice.

I am aware that I need to plan for social interaction as I transition into retirement.  Happily, I will be moving back to a community where I have a network of close friends. And although most of these friendships are with people that I once worked with, they have survived decades of not being based in the workplace. In addition, I benefit from the fact that women seem to make new friends more easily in late adulthood than do men. Nevertheless, as I think about how I will spend my time in retirement, I know that I need to pay attention to the the danger of social isolation. I can’t just leave this to take care of itself; it will be important for me to include a place in my life for regularly scheduled activities that provide opportunities for social interaction and for developing friendships.


9 thoughts on “Transitioning to Retirement: The Issue of Social Relationships

  1. Jean says:

    I can sure relate to this post. Social isolation and working on finding a core group of people I can call friends is probably the hardest issue I face at this point in time. I’m finding that to be very hard when you don’t have children, grandchildren or a church to talk about with people in my age bracket. I was self employed most of my work life and my social life centered around my husband. I, too, enjoy spending time with myself but I know that isn’t healthy.

    • Jean says:

      Jean, Thanks for sharing your experience. This adds a complication that I hadn’t thought of — the way that having life experiences different from your age mates may interfere with developing social relationships. I think I am just enough younger than you to be part of the generation of women who came of age in the 1960s and divorced in the 1970s and early 1980s. The result is that many of the women my age are also long-time singles without children, making it a bit easier for me to find people in my age bracket who are interested in discussing topics other than children, grandchildren, and church. I am hoping that I will be able to establish new relationships via shared interests (e.g., gardening) that also provide topics of conversation.

      • Diana Studer says:

        I am hoping to find company, if not friends, at the U3A meetings. That will give at least some of the conversations a focus beyond ‘their grandchildren’.

        • Jean says:

          Diana, I had to look up U3A (University of the 3rd Age, for those who haven’t heard of it); it looks like a great program. Unfortunately, they don’t seem to have much of a presence in the US. For someone like me who has made a career of going to school :-), taking classes does seem like a great way to combine intellectual stimulation with social interaction.

  2. I have not relied on work relationships as I have grown older…I have moved jobs every 5-6 yrs and many of those relationships did not continue. I too can go long periods by myself which is not good. But having my husband helps as he is social…I have family and a few friends I want to keep in touch with…and I would love to travel and visit many blogger friends too.

    • Jean says:

      Donna, I’ve also relied on work relationships less than seems to be the norm. During the teaching semester, there’s not much time left over for a social life; and as soon as school is not in session, I take off for Maine. The result is that I did a much better job of maintaining friendships from my earlier work experiences than making new ones in Gettysburg.

  3. A smooth transition to retirement depends on financial circumstances, health as well as the reaction and behavior of loved ones and friends. The key is to remain aware that changes in relationships are a normal and expected part of retirement. Thus, it is important to be flexible and open to alternative living arrangements.

  4. Emily says:

    Retiring to a place where we knew only one person seemed like it would be a challenge. Although I re-married later in life (and have no children), I also cherish my time alone to wander, think, write, etc. But I knew that, without the workplace, I could too easily fall into the kind of isolation you write so well about. Luckily, our new home has become a place where we actually have more active friendships (dinners, trips, etc.) than we did when we worked. It just had to become far more conscious: When I met someone I liked, I invited them to lunch or dinner or coffee. I actively pursued relationships. A little like dating (as I recall). But not as fraught!

    • Jean says:

      LOL, Thank goodness it’s only a little like dating and “not as fraught”!! I can easily imagine having a more active social life after retirement; getting out from under the obligations of work does leave more time and energy for friendship. It seems like just a matter of finding the right places to meet like-minded souls and then, as you say, being more conscious about actively pursuing the relationship.

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I am Jean Potuchek, a professional sociologist who has just stepped into the next phase of my life, retirement, after more than thirty years of college teaching. This blog is about my experience of that new phase of life.

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