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.