University Study in Retirement – What influences people?

Judith A. Davey


Why would people in their sixties and beyond become university students? Surely work-related motives for study are left behind once people retire? Theories of human ageing can be useful in approaching these questions.


Status in our societies is mostly achieved through occupational prestige. After retirement this is difficult to maintain. The “identity crisis” theory of retirement, suggests that loss of occupational identity can be socially debilitating.  This assumes that paid work is the dominant factor in identity and that lost roles cannot be replaced. It is a very male interpretation of changes surrounding retirement and under-estimates other aspects of life such as family, friendships, unpaid and community work and leisure activities. Few people rest their entire identity on a single role.

Continuity and Substitution

The alternative ‘continuity’ theory suggests that people seek substitutes for activities left behind by ageing. Social contacts with family and friends or new activities such as leisure and education may be substituted for paid work, serving the same needs for self-esteem. Strands of life from the past may be resumed, interwoven and adapted. Substitution and continuity theory provide an alternative to the “disengagement theory” which gives a somewhat negative view of ageing, suggesting that it is a time of withdrawal from life.

What experiences and knowledge can people draw from to make these selections and adaptations? Work history, both paid and unpaid, is one influence. Family history and local culture are other important sources of continuity.

The 60-plus Group at Victoria University[1]

These ideas can be illustrated by the experiences of – students at Victoria University aged 60 plus, showing how study can contribute to maintaining a positive identity in retirement. People aged 60 plus represented a very small proportion of students at Victoria University who came into our study – only one in every 300; 21 were interviewed in depth, with ages ranging from 60 to 82.

Early education and influences on educational choices

Their initial education dated back to the 1930s and 1940s. Seven were early school leavers; some went straight into degree courses, but not all finished them at that stage; others went into some type of professional training, including nursing and teaching, or began “on-the-job” or apprenticeship training.

Gender expectations were prevalent at the time and could cut across class. Sheila’s father was an accountant and she attended private girl’s school[2]. But her parents didn’t think that further education was important for a girl. Neither of Katherine’s parents had any secondary education. She gained School Certificate, but left school at 16 and took up typing because her parents could not afford to support her and her brother in education.

Parental aspirations could be more encouraging. Some working class parents were ambitious for their children. Trevor’s father was a farm worker. When he passed his scholarship for grammar school there was debate about whether he should take it up. His father thought he ought to go to work – further education would be too expensive. His mother disagreed and her view prevailed.

Decisions about leaving school and further education were also influenced by work opportunities. In the 1950s and 60s in New Zealand there was a labour shortage; jobs were easy to obtain and replace.

The Second World War affected many of the interviewees and their educational prospects. Rose’s father was killed when she was four. Her mother was left very poorly off with three girls to rear. So Rose had to leave school and go to work. Grace and Chris were nearing school-leaving age when the war began. Grace’s parents wanted her to go to university, but she opted for teacher training as more practical. Chris had intended to begin a law degree but instead left school, joined the army and did two years officer training. Before the end of the war, at age 19, he was with an engineering corps in Italy.

Subsequent Education

Some interviewees had long gaps in their education. Laura took her law degree, but did no other study from her early twenties until well after her retirement. Sheila completed four units of accountancy immediately after school, but did not go back to formal study until she left work.

For several, especially the men, ongoing study was encouraged as part of their careers. Examples include Trevor in personnel management; Chris (army), Carl (church ministry) and several of the female teachers. Others, however, made a personal effort to study. Lillian abandoned her MA when she married, but took extra-mural papers while she was at home with her children. Joan gave up her music degree for similar reasons, but took continuing education music courses while caring for her family.


The group’s experience of retirement was variable. Some reached a set retirement age for their workplace or negotiated an agreed time with their employers. Others were less willing to give up work. Diana left teaching at 63 after feeling pressure from her colleagues who thought that younger people needed the work. Grace remained in distance education until she was 72, when a requirement to upskill seemed like a signal to go.

Some people started their courses very soon after retirement, but others delayed their studies for several years. For Deirdre the trigger was the death of her husband, when she was 73.

Four interviewees were already studying at university level at the time of retirement. For John and May this was overtly “in anticipation of retirement.” Susan and Grace were working part-time on their BAs, over a number of years. Several did not consider themselves retired. However all were working only part-time and had either left or did not have a career job.

So why university study? This will be covered in my next blog.


[1] See Davey, J., Neale, J. and Morris Matthews, K. (Eds.) (2003) Living and Learning: Experiences of

University after Age 40.  Wellington, Victoria University Press.

[2] The interviewees have all been given pseudonyms for reasons of confidentiality.

About Age Concern New Zealand 'on research'

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