University Study in Retirement – Choices and Balance

Judith A. Davey


Why university study? Many of the 60-plus interviewees in our Victoria University study[1], who had not previously been at university expressed a long-held desire for study at this level, and for those who had been before it was an obvious choice for learning. Several people had tried distance learning but found it isolating and others were not satisfied by community-based classes. There were several comments on U3A courses, which were seen as low level and non-participatory.

Why study at all and why these subjects?

These questions are difficult to separate. For some interviewees the answer was a desire to pursue an interest of very long standing – either work-related, a hobby, or an aspect of personal experience. Work-related interests were not to the fore, although Don was taking BCA to update his accountancy skills and Katherine and Carl chose courses relating back to their careers as a political writer and a chaplain. Building on a long-term hobby was the motive for John. He had been playing the clarinet for 30 years and now he was retired he wanted to know more about the technical aspects of music so that he could adapt and arrange music for his group of amateur players. Lillian’s interest in art sprang originally from a paper on the Renaissance which was part of her history degree in the 1950s.

For some interviewees, the desire to study arose out of a comparatively recent interest. Trevor’s developed almost accidentally. Going to a recreational class on Polynesian dance led to university courses in Pacific languages and then a BA in anthropology and linguistics. Three years after her retirement, Diana went on a continuing education tour to Greece and Italy but was frustrated that she did not know more about what she was seeing. She went back to complete a degree in Classics. Experiences in other countries provided the impetus for some people. Chris went back to Italy to see people and places which he knew from the war and returned with a strong interest in learning Italian.

For several women, their most recent period of study represented a natural progression from earlier academic work. Laura picked up from her (1940s) studies in Latin and German and went on to complete an MA and a PhD. Geraldine completed her BA part-time while working and later an honours degree in English and Philosophy. When she moved into tutoring she was told she needed an MA. Rae is now working on an MA in Women’s Studies after completing her BA which she began in her 40s following the breakdown of her marriage.

How did study fit into life in retirement?

Did it provide a substitute for paid work? Several of those interviewed had very structured lives, of which study was only one part. Chris rose early and retired at 10, “regular as clockwork.” Others were clear that study provided structure in their lives. Deirdre had a work schedule, with breaks to buy a paper, do the crossword, meditate, walk and have a snooze. Some of the interviewees clearly saw university study as a job substitute and a means of giving structure to their lives –

After working for so long I could get lazy, so it’s good to have a routine. I go in 4 times a week – I just do it. (Susan)

 The University is “my club”. I come in most days and spend time socialising in the quad.  I sit in front at lectures and meet older students that way. (Don)

 The concept of study as a substitute for work can be carried further. Where people filled their lives with activity in retirement, they actually granted themselves “holidays” from it. Like paid work, the demands of study, even though freely chosen, can become onerous. Diana hinted at this –

Study does give structure to my life and this is important. I like the lectures, having lunch with people, getting out of the house, even the trip in to university by bus. It is good to understand what people are doing, not to feel shut out of the world. But sometime it’s a bit like slavery.

 She likened the completion of her degree to a second retirement, which she was sure she would manage better than her first.

Family and caring work occupied several of the interviewees, especially the women. Deirdre had 17 grandchildren, and some visited her daily. She found interruptions to her study bothersome, but she co-operated to enjoy the social contact.  Rose’s grandchildren also frequently came to stay – “I feel guilty when I have to say no to them when I have an essay due”. Grace was caring for her husband, who was severely limited by arthritis. She fitted her study around his needs, calling it “working in the cracks”.

All these examples show how people felt the need to remain busy in retirement, substituting study and other activities for career occupations, with overtones of a moral imperative. Nina made this clear –

I don’t find happiness in gambling (playing mah-jong) as my peers do. It’s a waste of time, I would rather read. Study gives me an aim and something to look forward to.


[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

About Age Concern New Zealand 'on research'

At the heart of everything Age Concern does is a passion to see older people experience well-being, respect, dignity, and to be included and valued. We support, inform and advise older people on issues such as access to health care, transport, housing, financial entitlements, and social opportunities. We also work to combat real problems in our society, like elder abuse and neglect, chronic loneliness and social isolation. We provide specialist services with trained and qualified professionals able to give expert advice and assistance. Age Concern is a charity and relies on the support of volunteers and public donations to do much of the work we do. To help us help older people, please consider making a donation of your time or money. To see how, visit
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6 Responses to University Study in Retirement – Choices and Balance

  1. Robyn Haynes says:

    Thanks to Rachel for introducing me to this blog. I am interested in the stories of late formal learners. As someone who began tertiary study in her fifties, I was surprised how my original motive for studying changed from the endgame of achieving the degree to the journey of discovery that learning became.


  2. lifecameos says:

    I also heard that U3A was non participatory and not helpful for establishing a satisfying life in retirement. Before retirement I was fully expecting to work part time after reaching 65, but at that time the jobs dried up in our region. I spent a year doing creative writing papers at Massey, which gave me a good grounding for the writing that I wanted to do. Since then I have been writing poetry, and posting three poems a week on WordPress since November 2015.


    • mp3evans says:

      I have been house-sitting around NZ for the past 3 years and discovered extremely vibrant, participator U3A groups in many places. Currently I’m in Nelson where I’m involved in 3 groups, all of them excellent particularly the Philosophy of Justice group – we have the most thought provoking discussions (which continue via email in between sessions) after we’ve watched the video lectures by Michael Sandel of Harvard University.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Pingback: Introducing On Research — a blog for Age Concern New Zealand | Write into life

  4. Rachel McAlpine says:

    Reblogged this on Write into life and commented:
    Let me introduce a blog written by my friend Professor Judith Davey, On Research. She writes this for Age Concern in New Zealand, who have “a passion to see older people experience well-being, respect, dignity, and be included and valued.”


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