For the past year I have been conducting research into the male experience of marriage and family; events which are more usually considered from a female perspective. Throughout August, BBC radio 4 Woman's Hour broadcast a series of my interviews with men aged from 20 to 85. The first week focussed on young men, role models and the way in which parental behaviour influences attitudes towards relationships. The second week examined men's experiences of pregnancy, birth and fatherhood. In week three men talked about marriage and divorce. The final week focused on retirement and death.
1. The number of people aged 65 and over in the UK has increased by 80% in the last sixty years. Although life expectancy has increased, the average age at which people retire has decreased. OECD Statistics show that the average effective retirement age for men fell from 68.6 in the late 1960s to 63.5 in the five years to 2009 (OECD, 2011).
2. Retirement means different things to different people. Some people see it as an opportunity to escape work obligations and pursue their own passions. Others view the transition as a loss of status, social connectedness, and financial security. The way in which retirement is perceived is determined by a number of different variables.
3. Initially, how people feel depends on the way in which they experience the event. Involuntary retirement, or unexpected job loss has been most consistently linked to increased depression. Voluntary retirement, or spending a period of time working part-time, appears to make the transition less stressful.
4. Individual circumstances such as financial security, health, or relational stability, have a greater impact than the actual event itself. Personality is also important. Extroverts with high self-esteem tend to fare best, but people who have tied their identity and self-worth to their job often struggle to cope. Attributes such as competitiveness, and assertiveness, which may have contributed to earlier career success, can work against a person in retirement.
5. Having a spouse, participating in community activities, and having friends, are strong predictors of well-being in retirement (Hong & Duff, 1997), however these factors cannot be conjured up five minutes before you get your gold watch. Planning for retirement needs to happen long in advance of the actual event.
6. Although retirement is viewed as an individual experience, it has an enormous impact on marital relationships. In the initial stages of retirement there is a kind of honeymoon period where couples rate their marriages more favorably, they have better sex lives, and feel their relationships have actually improved. It doesn't last. Research by Elizabeth Mokyr Horner at the University of California, Berkeley suggests that the "sugar rush" of well-being and life satisfaction that is experienced directly after retirement, is followed by a sharp decline in happiness a few years later.
7. When people are working it can be easier to overlook spousal differences, but when couples find themselves spending day after day in close proximity, those differences can be more difficult to ignore. Because women generally have better social and familial support networks, they tend to find retirement less challenging. Men are less socially dexterous and if they don't have outside interests, or their own social circle, they can become overly reliant on their spouse.
8. Depending on your perspective, retirement can be a wall or a door, but there is no denying that it happens at a time when the curve of existence is on a down-ward trajectory. People are tasked with reshaping their existence and finding meaningful goals at a time when their levels of energy and motivation are considerably lower than they once were. Retirement is also a time when health begins to deteriorate. In fact it increases the probability of having at least one diagnosed physical condition and having to take a drug to treat it, by about 60% (Institute of Economic Affairs, 2013).
9. Retirement increases the probability of suffering from clinical depression by about 40%. This is problematic because The Royal College of Psychiatrists estimates that 85% of older people with depression get no help from the NHS. Untreated depression is the leading cause of suicide in later life, for both men and women. Men aged 40-44 years of age have the highest suicide rate at 25 deaths per 100,000, but the rate for men aged over eighty is 19.5 deaths per 100,000
10. Women still outlive men in all countries (Barford et al. 2006), so women are more likely to be widowed. Bereavement hurts, irrespective of gender, but men seem to be particularly vulnerable after losing a spouse. In a large longitudinal study carried out by Guohua Li at the School of Hygiene & Public Health at Johns Hopkins University, Baltimore, the risk of suicide for widowers was more than five times that for married men, while the relative risk of suicide for widows was roughly the same as it was for married women (Li, 1995).