Looking forward to “retirement” how it differs between countries

Dr. Judith Davey

What retirement means in an ageing population has thankfully shifted from the literal meaning of the word as “withdrawal’ and “exit” to a more positive view. The “disengagement theory” of ageing has been superseded by “activity theory”, which suggests that individuals find new activities to replace career work, and “continuity theory” which views retirement as transitional, with continuity of lifestyles and values. This acknowledges the complex interactions between individuals, their family circumstances, health, and institutional contexts, which develop throughout life.

The change in thinking was acknowledged in a study on retirement expectations, carried out in Italy, the UK, and the USA, which questioned older workers about to retire.[1] What interested me particularly was how local circumstances, culture and policy settings affected retirement planning and expectations.

Italy has a “Mediterranean” welfare regime, based on a culture where the role of the family is central. Child-care and elder care are predominantly delegated to the family and formal care arrangements are less developed. On retirement, people become a resource for caring roles. An Italian employee must leave their employment to become eligible for the pension..

England and the USA have liberal welfare models, where individuals are generally expected to be independent of their families. The UK tax, benefit and pensions systems permit individuals to work whilst drawing state and/or private pensions, providing a financial incentive to continue working beyond pension age and making a shift to part-time employment attractive (as in NZ).  In both countries compulsory retirement has been prohibited, providing a strong pro-work incentive.

Paid Work orientation

The US interviewees showed a continued orientation towards work – with less emphasis on a retirement exclusively of leisure. For those with less generous pensions the additional income from work was a key reason for them to remain employed.

Many of the UK interviewees had employment-oriented plans for retirement, suggesting they would be returning to some form of paid work either with their former employers under new arrangements (perhaps working fewer hours), in a new job, or on a self-employed basis. This suggested that their work–life balance had shifted into a ‘gradual retirement’ trajectory.

By contrast, the desire for paid work was much less evident in the retirement plans of the Italian interviewees. The main explanation for this was that, having worked all their lives, they wanted other activities. Many saw stepping aside as a duty, to make room for unemployed young people.

The research certainly showed how the experience of ageing and retirement can vary between countries, reflecting their welfare regimes and pension policies. Whereas paid work was a dominant expectation for US interviewees, for Italian respondents retirement was considered a one-time, permanent break from paid work, explained in large part by the Italian policy settings.

Voluntary work

Almost all the interviewees anticipated doing voluntary work. For some, this would continue on from their pre-retirement roles, with an increase in intensity. Others were considering volunteering as a means to develop skills or use existing skills, to engage socially and maintain a routine in their lives.


A family orientation was particularly strong among both men and women Italian interviewees. They looked to retirement in relation to supporting family, spending more time together or helping adult children. Many had grandchildren or older relatives in need of care. Although gradually changing, family-oriented relationships and co-dependencies are still culturally taken for granted, and structure daily life.

In contrast, among UK interviewees there were no examples of individuals choosing to retire in order to care for older relatives. There were instances where people contemplated balancing caring roles with leisure activities but, similar to their views on paid work, on their own terms. They really enjoyed being grandparents but did not wish to be relied on except on an intermittent, occasional basis. This view was also reflected by USA respondents.

Expectations to provide informal care for others could therefore be seen as an accepted responsibility (as in Italy) or as an obstacle to other preferred activities. Concerns were expressed that retirees would become expected to perform caring roles on a routine basis once they left the labour market.

Independent living

Independent living in older age entails empowering people to remain in charge of their own lives for as long as possible. This covers maintaining healthy lifestyles and adequate incomes.

Plans for healthier lifestyles, improved diets and increased physical activity, were commonly expressed by interviewees in all three countries. Many hoped to pursue a wide range of sporting activities, motivated by a desire to maintain or improve health after retirement, or as a useful means of occupying newly freed time. It was also acknowledged that sport is a good source of social activity.

Income adequacy

There was a wide range of incomes in the three samples and an expectation that, once retired, incomes would be reduced. Some US and UK respondents were worried about their income during retirement (aligning with their expectations for continuing work), whereas this theme was not identified by Italian respondents. They felt that money is less important than family and good health, and they would “get by”. Plans to improve retirement income were not common.

The costs of health problems in later life were not raised by UK or Italian interviewees, reflecting universal coverage of tax/national insurance-funded health services.

Social connection

Interviewees in all three countries saw retirement as providing an opportunity to re-prioritise relationships and increase social networks through volunteering, sports or educational activities, as mentioned. Losing touch with work colleagues once they were retired, however, was raised by Italian respondents.

Lack of retirement plans

Most of the individuals in the study had clear ideas about the shape of their lives after retirement. But some had given little thought to the changes to come and how they would occupy their time. Some were anxious about the future. A number of interviewees expressed concerns and fear of becoming isolated. This fear encouraged many to consider ways to maintain or nurture new social relationships.

Suggested action

The paper concludes by suggesting actions to meet some of the concerns brought up in the pre-retirement survey. These include

initiatives by employers to help their staff make the transition to retirement and which could help both sides, for instance, keep-in-touch schemes to help retirees to maintain contact with old friends and colleagues. At the same time this could provide employers with a link to experienced ex-employees who may be interested in work on a casual or consultancy basis.

Awareness of retirement preparation events or courses was non-existent among the Italian interviewees and most provision in the UK and USA is focused on financial planning. More tailored programmes could be provided in the public sector, or by companies for their workforce.


[1] Andrea Principi, Sara Santini, Marco Socci, Deborah Smeaton, Kevin E. Cahill, Sandra Vegeris and Helen Barnes (2016) Retirement plans and active ageing: perspectives in three countries. Ageing and Society / FirstView Article / August 2016, pp 1 – 27. Published online: 22 August 2016


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 www.ageconcern.org.nz
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