Strategic Selection as a Retirement Project: Will Americans Develop Hybrid Arrangements?
Moen, Phyllis, Altobelli, Joyce, Annual Review of Gerontology & Geriatrics
Historically, retirement was an "event," a one-time, one-way exit from the world of work to the golden years of full-time leisure. This definition is increasingly problematic, because many older workers retire from one job only to take on another, often well before age 65, or else move into a new career in unpaid civic engagement. Moreover, downsizing and early retirement packages, as well as (one's own or older relatives') health problems, mean that people today may find themselves retired well before they expected to be. In this chapter, we draw on a life-course, role-context perspective to consider retirement both as a collective social demarcation and as a biographical event in individual lives-an event that is now in flux at both societal and individual levels. We draw on research (our own and others) to propose that: 1) retirement planning, and indeed, retirement itself, is now what sociologist Andrew Cherlin (1978) describes as an incomplete institution, without routine scripts or timetables; and 2) older workers and their spouses engage in strategic role selections (Moen &r Spencer, 2005), making decisions about when, whether, and how to retire from their career jobs and what they want to do "next." Figuring out this new stage of life is (or will be) a major "project" for most Americans and for the nation. We propose the possibility of a hybrid model of retirement: opportunities for paid civic engagement as a workforce for change.
We make use of data from the Cornell Retirement and Well-Being Study to analyze the retirement "project" as it unfolds over time. This study involved interviewing (three times, 2 years apart) 762 men and women, employed (or retired from) one of six establishments, from 1994 to 2000 (who were ages 50-72 at the time of the first interview). We also interviewed their wives or husbands (see Appendix).
RETIREMENT AS AN INCOMPLETE INSTITUTION
Three things make something an institution: language that develops around it, taken-for-granted customs, and a body of rules and laws (Biggart & Beamish, 2003; Stryker, 1994). Our evidence suggests that all these are in play around retirement. It is increasingly a fuzzy transition; no longer a one-time, oneway, age-graded event (Kim & Moen, 2001b; Moen, 2001). And it most often occurs (at least for the first time!) now well before the customary age of 65. Cherlin (1982) wrote about remarriage as an emerging incomplete institution in the 1970s and '80s. Retirement, by contrast, represents a previously institutionalized arrangement that is losing its taken-for-granted aspects.
Consider the ambiguity of age-related demarcations and language. People in their 50s, 60s, and 70s are not "old," but they are not "young" either, and "middle age" seems to start around age 35 (Lachman &James, 1997). We like the word midcourse to refer to those in and around the retirement years (ages roughly from 50 to 75), because they are midway, literally and figuratively, through their adult lives, somewhere between the career- and family-building years of early adulthood and the frailties commonly associated with old age (Moen, 2003, 2005).
We have found the language around retirement to be problematic for many people of a certain age. One person we interviewed, retired from his firm years ago but now re-employed by that same firm, has trouble filling out company forms; he does not know whether to call himself a retiree or employee. Some older workers who were laid off or downsized in the 2 years between interviews tell us that they are retired. When we probe for what happened, they often say that "retirement" is more socially acceptable than being unemployed and with no job prospects. Homemakers in our study also often call themselves retired once their husbands' have left their career jobs, although many wives complain that they have more than ever to do with their husbands underfoot. Retirees who volunteer find no easy way of describing themselves. …