A Life Course Perspective On Retirement: Normative Trajectories


August 14, 2014 by Jean

In Pascale, Primavera and Roach’s book The Retirement Maze (see Retirement Transition Reading: The Retirement Maze), “life course theory” is one of the social science perspectives used to understand retirement. The life course perspective looks at human lives as sequences of socially defined events and stages. For example, we can think of the ‘Quinceañera’ 15th birthday celebration for girls in many Latin American cultures as a socially defined life event; and retirement, of course, is a socially defined life stage.

There are a number of concepts from life course theory that are useful for thinking about the experience of retirement. The first of these is the idea of  “normative trajectories.” Think of a trajectory as the arc of a person’s life from birth to death. Life course theory assumes that individuals’ trajectories are not unique, but that they follow general patterns. Sociologists use the adjective “normative” to describe a pattern that is socially defined as appropriate. In the American middle class, one example of a normative trajectory would be: complete education, find a job and get established in a career, get married, have children, continue to advance in career, launch children into adulthood, retire. Social norms influence both the order in which events and stages occur and and the ages at which they occur.

While there is not a single normative trajectory for getting to retirement, the options are also not infinite; and those who have not followed a normative trajectory are more likely to find their transitions to retirement difficult. In all of the usual patterns, for example, being established in some kind of job or career seems to be a necessary precursor to retirement, which means that it is difficult to retire if you have never established yourself in an occupation. Women who have been full-time homemakers often find that since their domestic work is not socially recognized as a job or career, they are also not granted the right to retire from that work. One man I know has been a perpetual student, spending decades in a PhD program where he neither finished the requirements nor acknowledged that he wasn’t going to finish and moved on. He earned money throughout this period, but in the contingent labor force, where he supported himself in part-time and temporary jobs that are not socially defined as “real jobs.” Now in his sixties, he is finding it difficult to plot out a transition to retirement because he hasn’t followed a normative trajectory to get there.

Normative trajectories not only include socially appropriate sequences of life events and stages, but also socially appropriate ages at which those various events or stages should occur. In some societies, the normative age for retirement is very clearly and narrowly defined and may be specified in the law. This is not the case in the United States; here the normative age for retirement includes a fairly broad range of ages, probably extending from the late fifties through the mid sixties. Those who retire before this age range are likely to be defined as taking an “early retirement,” and those who are not transitioning to retirement by their late sixties may be subject to some social disapproval and defined as being “unable to let go.”

The transition to retirement may be further complicated by being in an occupation where the normative age for retirement comes either earlier or later than the more general societal pattern. For example, when professional athletes retire from their sports careers while in their twenties or thirties, we usually want to put the word “retire” in quotation marks and we expect them to take up a new career and continue to work. Some social awkwardness may also accompany the transition to retirement for those in protective services like police or firefighters or in the military, where retirement often occurs earlier than in other occupations. On the other side of the normative age range for retirement, academics (at least those at liberal arts colleges like the ones where I spent my career) tend to retire later than the more general pattern. Within these academic settings, retiring around age seventy is quite appropriate and people aren’t likely to begin treating you as though you are hanging on too long until you get closer to eighty. But academics can expect to get a different reaction from those outside the academy. A 67-year-old colleague of mine, who is just beginning to think about when she might retire, was taken aback at a routine medical appointment when her doctor asked incredulously (and with some disapproval), “Are you still working?!?” My own retirement from teaching at age 66 seemed perfectly normal to family and friends outside the academy, but raised some questions from colleagues about why I was retiring so early.

The concept of normative trajectories can help us to anticipate and understand some bumps in the road in the transition to retirement. If you are arriving at retirement via an atypical sequence of life stages or at an atypical age, you should expect that the transition to retirement may be a little tricky. If you are coming from a work world in which retirement occurs earlier or later than is considered normative in the rest of the society, you should be prepared to find that what seems perfectly appropriate within your occupational world requires explanation and justification outside that world.


4 thoughts on “A Life Course Perspective On Retirement: Normative Trajectories

  1. Jean says:

    I often wonder what the trajectory of my life and retirement would have been like if my husband’s massive stroke hadn’t forced us both to leave the work force. Now, 14 years later in the aftermath of my husband’s death two+ years ago it feels like I’ve been facing a lot of the same issues as recently retired people do…only without any of the planning and preparing that should have been done. Oops!

    • Jean says:

      Jean, Your experience is such a good example. I imagine that both you and Don were thrown off normative trajectories toward retirement when he had his stroke. Did he work his way back toward something that looked a lot like retirement (albeit with serious disabilities)? Meanwhile, you took on the role of caretaker — one of those unpaid jobs that makes it more difficult to transition to retirement.

  2. Interesting Jean that even though I was considered on a normative trajectory, many people consider 57 too early to retire. But in public education we can begin to retire at age 55 with 30 yrs of service which is typical. I can see where it would be difficult to retire if you were a perpetual student or a homemaker.

    • Jean says:

      Donna, Your experience seems like one of those mis-matches between what’s considered normative inside a particular occupational setting and what’s considered normative outside that setting. I was trying to figure out where our general sense of “appropriate” ages to retire begin and end; it sounds as though you’ve gotten some reactions that 57 is “too early.”

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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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