The Role of Retired Person


October 3, 2014 by Jean

During my long years teaching sociology, I always enjoyed introducing students to the sociological concept of “social role” because they found it so immediately useful for understanding their own experiences. A social role is a set of expectations about how people in a particular social position should behave. For example, there is a social role of “mother” that defines what a society expects of mothers. The behavioral expectations defined by a social role include both how a person in this role is expected to behave toward others (their responsibilities) and what a person in this role can expect from others (their rights). The concept of social role can help us understand our experiences in the transition to retirement.

In general, the socially defined expectations of the many social roles we play make our lives easier. When I go into a store, for example, I don’t have to spend a lot of time figuring out how to get help or to pay for my purchase; the socially defined roles of customer and clerk make such interactions simple and straightforward. While the role of customer in this example may be a peripheral part of our lives, other social roles we play are central to our identities. Some retirees experience a profound sense of loss because they are giving up a work role that was at the core of their self-definition. If I’m not a [fill in the work role] anymore, who am I?

Social roles generally make life easier, but sometimes they can also create difficulties. For example, the expectations of one role may conflict with the expectations of another (as when work obligations interfere with parental responsibilities). Roles can also be problematic when their expectations are not clear (we can’t figure out what is expected of us). It seems to me that the role of retired person is vague in this way. What can we reasonably expect of others as retired persons? What can they expect from us? Does a retired grandparent have a responsibility to be available for daily child care or a right to maintain leisure time and a flexible schedule? Are retired people responsible for taking care of themselves financially, or do they have a right to call on adult children for financial help if they can’t make ends meet? Do retirees have a right to expect respect and deference for their experience and skills, or do they have a responsibility to get out of the way as the next generation moves into positions of power and authority?

The ambiguity surrounding the role of retired person can be seen in the organization of the typical retirement party, which focuses on the worker’s past contributions and says little about their future. It’s as though the retiree is jumping off a cliff into the abyss. And, indeed, it may feel to the retiring worker as though they are jumping into the abyss, as they have difficulty anticipating what retirement will be like. Role ambiguity makes it difficult to engage in a process known as “anticipatory socialization,” where a person prepares for the transition from one social role to another by imagining themselves in the new role and even trying out some of its expected behaviors. (Academics like myself may be at an advantage here; many of us experience sabbaticals from teaching late in our careers as opportunities to imagine what retirement would be like.) The lack of clear definition for the retiree role may also contribute to the sense of invisibility and loss of social value that many of us experience as we get older.

But role ambiguity isn’t just a problem. On the flip side of the coin, the absence of clearly defined role expectations provides opportunities for creative “role making” – inventing what it means to be a retired person. It seems likely to me that in the coming decades, as baby boomers retire and retirees become a much larger proportion of the population, the role of retired person will become more clearly defined. Those of us on the leading edge of the baby boom have an opportunity not only to invent what being retired means for us, but also to help define the expectations attached to the role of retired person for society at large and for those who will follow us in that role.

7 thoughts on “The Role of Retired Person

  1. You put a lot of thought and research into this post. Retirement is a complicated process. 🙂

  2. I think our generation will continue to redefine the role of the retiree. I am still trying to figure out what I want to do next although writing, gardening and photography have been my current pursuits. I almost think we need more than a half day seminar to help us transition though. Wouldn’t it be great to have retiree planning, like career planning, that is more widely available and widely accepted…breaking the bonds of what is thought of as the stereotype of retirement now.

    • Jean says:

      Donna, Your comment illustrates the two sides of the current ambiguity about what it means to be retired. On the one hand, you need to figure out what you want to do and wish there were more supports to help those who are about to retire think about those decisions. On the other hand, there are all those wonderful possibilities out there that you get to choose among.

  3. Jean says:

    Being on the cutting edge of the Baby Boomers is a strange place to be. We seen the needs of our peer group and the beginnings of people talking about solutions for the coming wave of expected retirees and aging people flooding the housing market, medical services, etc but most of those solutions ans services aren’t fully in place to help us. At least that was my experience with being a spouse/caregiver. Community support—the adult daycare’s, the friendly visitors that let you get away for awhile, etc., etc.—weren’t in place when I took on the role 20 years ago between my caregiver roles for dad and my husband, but the talk of the Baby Boomers coming along helped to kick start programs in recent years.

    I find the ambiguity of being ‘retired’ very hard to deal with and I blame that mostly on not having children and grandchildren. I hear the women at the senior hall talk and I get the impression they all spend a lot of time giving back up to their kids—babysitting, picking up and dropping off kids to after school stuff, attending games, pet sitting, etc. Much of their social life is wrapped up with their children and grandchildren which is great for society, I think, but makes it hard for people like me who are missing that whole role of live to form friendships. They don’t have need for companion when it’s built-in and ready made. It’s also hard for me to form an answer to that question of what did you do before you retired. I worked full time my entire adult life until I took over care of my dad and then I worked part time. I was a caregiver out of compassion but in the floral industry for 20 years out of love for the work. So what did I really retire from?

    I didn’t mean to write a book here but this is an interesting topic. I didn’t mind being a trail blazer for the Baby Boomers back in the 50’s, 60’s, 70’s and 80’s but some how I feel too worn out to do it again. I think I need an attitude adjustment. LOL

    • Jean says:

      Jean, Some writers have suggested that one reaction to the stresses and ambiguity of retirement is for a person to emphasize on-going roles that are much less ambiguous and that are important to the person’s identity. The roles of parent and grandparent seem to fill the bill very nicely. Like you, I don’t have a spouse, children or grandchildren, so I don’t have those family roles to fall back on. (Which leaves us no choice to be trailblazers — so we may as well embrace the excitement of being in that position. 🙂 )

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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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