April 27, 2014 by Jean
…All retirees face the same two challenges of retirement: to manage its threat of marginality and to utilize its promise of freedom. How these twin challenges are dealt with decides the quality of life in retirement. (Robert S. Weiss, The Experience of Retirement, p. 14)
I have long enjoyed the work of Robert S. Weiss, a sociologist who specializes in the study of social relationships and especially what happens to those relationships during major life transitions, and whose books have been very helpful to me in negotiating some of my own life transitions. So when I learned that Weiss had written a book about The Experience of Retirement (ILR Press, 2005), I expected that it would help me prepare for my own retirement.
I was not disappointed. Weiss’s book is based on repeated in-depth interviews with 89 (mostly) middle-class retirees from the Boston metropolitan area. Because Weiss wanted his study to include the transition to retirement, he recruited participants for the study who were just about to retire or who had retired very recently. Half the retirees in the study were interviewed once before they retired; the other half were interviewed within a few months after they retired. The researchers tried to follow up by re-interviewing study participants about once a year, and most were interviewed at least twice after their retirement. The result is a very thoughtful look at retirement as a process and as a daily experience. In this very engaging book, Weiss extracts common themes from the interviews and illustrates them with the words of his interviewees.
Because Weiss is interested in the transition to retirement, the first three chapters of The Experience of Retirement focus on the departure from work. Weiss explores the varied reasons for retirement expressed in his interviews and then goes on to examine how his interviewees experienced the last months of work and the gains and losses they experienced as they moved from work into retirement. Weiss finds that these experiences differ between those whose retirements were what he calls “orderly” (planned and scheduled) and those whose retirements were more precipitous.
At the heart of Weiss’s exploration of retirement as a social experience are three chapters that explore how the men and women he studied dealt with money issues in retirement, with the problem of social isolation as they were cut adrift from relationships anchored in the workplace, and with the use of time in retirement. Since Weiss is a sociologist, it is perhaps not surprising that he is far more interested in the issues of social isolation and time use than in how retirees manage their money; he argues that the major challenges of retirement are social, not financial.
Weiss follows these chapters about the major challenges of retirement with a chapter that examines how the transition to retirement and the experience of retirement are affected by marriage and family relationships and a chapter that focuses on one interviewee who seems to Weiss to be leading an exemplary retirement. Finally, The Experience of Retirement ends with a conclusion in which Weiss uses what he has learned from his research to proffer advice to prospective retirees.
Robert S. Weiss’s careful research and engaging writing make The Experience of Retirement a valuable book for anyone considering retirement who would like to know how a variety of real Americans have experienced it and for those in retirement who want to understand their own experiences in the context of larger social patterns. (One caveat, however, is that Weiss’s analysis is based on the experiences of middle-class Americans with a good financial foundation of retirement savings; the experiences of lower-income retirees may be quite different in important ways.) This book has been a touchstone for me in my own transition to retirement.