September 9, 2021 • Third Third Journal
A few weeks ago I started to wonder: Is retirement good for you? Are retired people healthier? Happier? Do those who retire live better, even longer lives? I wasn’t asking these questions because I’m thinking about retiring any time soon. But in my work on the De Pree Center’s “Flourishing in the Third Third of Life” initiative, learning about retirement and its implications is essential.
Like many people, I had an intuitive sense that retirement is good for us. I know plenty of folks who retired from stress-filled jobs into lives that allowed for healthier living, more travel, and lots of time with family, especially grandchildren. It certainly seems as if retirement has been good for them, and I can imagine that it adds years to their lives.
Yet, I also know people who seem lost in retirement, or lonely, or lacking a compelling purpose for living. This seems to be especially true for those whose entry into retirement wasn’t optimal. Perhaps they lost their jobs before they intended to retire. Or maybe they had health problems that ended their careers.
So, I began trying to answer the “Is retirement good for you?” with a fairly open mind. I had a few hunches, but found it pretty easy to begin my research without too much bias.
What I Found on Google
I started looking for answers to my goodness-of-retirement question by doing various Google searches. I figured that it would be easy to find both popular and scholarly articles that showed the benefits or detriments of retirement. I assumed that it wouldn’t be hard to find consensus among commentators and researchers. Surely the evidence points in one direction or the other.
But I quickly learned that I had assumed wrongly. Yes, there were lots of articles related to the health and happiness implications of retirement, but consensus was not to be found . . . not at all! For example, Forbes, the respected business magazine, featured an article with this headline: “Want to live longer? Retire Early.” A piece at CNBC agrees: “You can live longer if you retire early, research shows – here’s why.” Retirement, it seems, leads to a better and longer life.
But it’s not that straightforward. An article in Harvard Business Review begins with this curious headline, “You’re Likely to Live Longer if you Retire After 65.” The BBC published a piece with a more ominous title, “Why retirement can be bad for your health.” The more you surf the Web looking for the truth about retirement, health, and longevity, the more you’ll find enthusiastic, confident proponents of completely opposing viewpoints. Some are convinced that retirement is good for you. Others that it is bad for you.
Scientists are Divided
This isn’t true only when it comes to popular articles. You’ll find similar division if you investigate the academic research on retirement. But you don’t have to read dozens of scientific reports to get the lay of the land here. Marta Zaraska, a science journalist with expertise in issues related to aging, recently summarized the research on retirement and health in her Washington Post article, “Retire or keep working? The healthy answer isn’t that simple.” She notes that personal anecdotes support both sides of the retirement-health debate. But that’s not all.
Scientific literature appears no less divided at first glance. For instance, various studies conducted in the United States, Austria, Greece and Denmark all found a link between working longer and reduced mortality risk.
Yet, Zaraska continues:
[A] different U.S. study of more than 6,000 people 50 and older found “strong evidence that retirement improves reported health, mental health, and life satisfaction.” Studies in the Netherlands and Japan also noted the positive effects of retirement on health.
How is this possible? Zaraska explains:
The message was probably best summed up in a 2020 meta-analysis, the gold standard for research, which looked at 25 studies and concluded that the effects of retirement on health are “mixed” — sometimes positive, sometimes negative depending on a variety of factors.
Since I have access to the full articles mentioned by Zaraska because of my Fuller Seminary connection, I checked them just to be sure she summarized accurately. She did. So, it seems clear that there isn’t one, simple answer to my question, “Is retirement good for you?” The best answer is: “Well, it all depends.”
Why Are Experiences of Retirement So Different?
Upon what does the answer depend? A wide variety factors, it turns out. Mo Wang, a professor at the University of Florida, wrote an article for the Journal of Applied Psychology with the compelling title, “Profiling Retirees in the Retirement Transition and Adjustment Process: Examining the Longitudinal Change Patterns of Retirees’ Psychological Well-Being.” Wang found that:
By recognizing the existence of multiple retiree subgroups corresponding to different psychological well-being change patterns, this study suggests that retirees do not follow a uniform adjustment pattern during the retirement process, which reconciles inconsistent previous findings.
His point is that different groups of retirees have different experiences of retirement depending on the state of their lives and how they respond to the change brought about by retirement. So, for example, if a person’s sense of self is highly attached to their role at work, then retirement might be more traumatic than it would be for someone whose identity is related to other key roles, such as husband or wife or mentor or friend. But, if a married person who retires has an unhappy marriage, then it’s likely they will have a harder time with retirement. (No doubt their spouse won’t be having much fun, either.)
For many who are beyond the traditional retirement age of 65, work is a positive and life-enhancing experience. Paola Scommegna, in “Working Past Traditional Retirement Ages” comments, “Working at older ages appears to keep people mentally sharp, physically active, and socially connected, some research shows.” Yet, Scommengna notes, “[O]ther studies suggest that retirement may reduce health-threatening stress and give older people more time to prioritize exercise and healthy eating.”
So, we should not be satisfied with simplistic statements about the benefits or detriments of retirement. Austin Frakt, research professor at Boston University, offers wise advice in his New York Times piece, “The Connection Between Retiring Early and Living Longer.” “Research shows a link [between retirement and length of life],” Frakt writes, “but it isn’t retirement itself that leads to a longer life, but what you do in retirement.”
What Will Help You Flourish in Retirement?
At another time I’ll dig into what research shows about the kinds of activities that lead to both a longer and a better life in retirement. Several of these are noted in an article from the Harvard Health Blog, “Is retirement good for health or bad for it?” Summarizing findings from the Harvard Study of Adult Development, things that contribute to health in retirement include: forging a new social network, playing, being creative, and ongoing learning. Increasingly, people who retire from one career are starting businesses. According to recent studies of entrepreneurship in the U.S., more people age 55 and older are starting businesses than people in the 20-34 age bracket. (This combines data from Kaufmann with observations from MIT Technology Review and data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.)
Some of what is essential for flourishing in retirement I have already written about, things such as: investing in deep, lasting relationships and having a clear sense of purpose. That purpose, by the way, needs to be more than merely living for your own pleasure. It’s fine to enjoy travel, play pickleball, and visit your grandchildren. And it’s great to get more sleep and exercise. But those who flourish in the third third of life have a purpose that is greater than their own wellbeing. They are living to serve others and to make a difference in the world, whether through paid or non-paid work. Ultimately, we who follow Jesus should see our retirement as a time to continue to live our whole lives as his disciples.
Dr. Mark D. Roberts is a Senior Strategist for Fuller’s Max De Pree Center for Leadership, where he focuses on the spiritual development and thriving of leaders. He is the principal writer of the daily devotional, Life for Leaders, and the founder of the De Pree Center’s Flourishing in the Third Third of Life Initiative. Previously, Mark was the Executive Director of the De Pree Center, the lead pastor of a church in Southern California, and the Senior Director of Laity Lodge in Texas. He has written eight books, dozens of articles, and over 2,500 devotions that help people discover the difference God makes in their daily life and leadership. With a Ph.D. in New Testament from Harvard, Mark teaches at Fuller Seminary, most recently in his D.Min. cohort on “Faith, Work, Economics, and Vocation.” Mark is married to Linda, a marriage and family counselor, spiritual director, and executive coach. Their two grown children are educators on the high school and college level.