Satisfaction with Retirement in Men's Lives

By Vaillant, George E.; DiRago, Ana C. | Annual Review of Gerontology & Geriatrics, January 1, 2006 | Go to article overview

Satisfaction with Retirement in Men's Lives


Vaillant, George E., DiRago, Ana C., Annual Review of Gerontology & Geriatrics


Only in the twentieth century have a majority of Americans lived past 65. Only in the last half of the twentieth century have a majority of American's been able to afford retirement. The Third Age is still relatively uncharted territory. In our study of retirement, several surprises have challenged previously held misconceptions about this stage in life. The greatest surprise has been that the very risk factors associated with bleak young adulthood and the very risk factors associated with bleak midlife exerted relatively little effect on whether the men in our study have enjoyed retirement. It was as if retirement really reflected a new Third Stage of life. It was as if retirement created-for men at least-another chance at a contented life.

The Study of Adult Development (Vaillant, 2000, 2002) has followed two cohorts of men-a socioeconomically disadvantaged sample of 456 inner-city men (Vaillant, 1995) and a socially and intellectually advantaged sample of 268 college graduates (Vaillant, 1977)-since 1940. Our chapter focuses on the Inner City cohort. Because of prospective well-documented assessment of multiple measures of IQ, school achievement, and multiproblem family membership, the later course of this cohort has been particularly informative. Equally important, we possessed prospectively gathered information about these men's physical health and their ability to love and to work during the decades prior to retirement. Finally, the Inner City cohort was homogeneous for potential confounders such as school system (all inner-city), race (all White), gender (all male), and parental education (uniformly disadvantaged). The men, first interviewed in early adolescence, were reinterviewed at approximately ages 25, 30, and 47. Since age 45, the men have been followed by biennial questionnaires.

The raw data for childhood assessments came from interviews with the subject, his parents, and his teacher, and from an extensive search of probation, mental health, and social service records before age 16. To reduce halo effects, the ratings described herein were made by nine different raters blinded to most other ratings.

The study has confirmed that the childhood risk factors identified in other prospective studies (Garmezy, 1983; Rutter, Yule, Quinton, Yule, & Berger, 1974; Werner & Smith, 1982) led to unhappiness and failure during the first 25 years of life (Vaillant, 1997). But, by virtue of its prospective design, the study found that by late middle life, however, there were surprises. Maturation and/or successful marriage had often transformed maladjusted early adulthoods for the better (Vaillant & Vaillant, 1981; Vaillant, 1993). Conversely, the penetrance of heredities burdened by alcoholism and depression often blighted midlife lives that had been promising in young adulthood. But before trying to describe the surprising life trajectories, we may do well to provide two illustrations of retirements that followed the expected path delineated by earlier life experiences.

Bill Lovejoy depicted a representative happy retirement. As a child, Lovejoy's neighborhood was overcrowded, often frequented by street gangs and "far from ideal." When Lovejoy was not in school or playing sports, he had shined shoes to bring his family a little extra money. The study psychiatrist described Lovejoy at 14: "The boy has a well-rounded personality with good sense of values and a wholesome range of interests. Definitely good standards and logical ambitions... he seems unusually well adjusted." Lovejoy's teacher described him as a "likeable, enjoyable child," who got along "wonderfully" with his schoolmates.

At age 23, when asked to reflect on his childhood, Lovejoy replied: "I never lacked anything when I was growing up. 1 went to church regularly and used up my spare time in sports at the YMCA or at the Boys Club. I knew my parents loved and wanted me.... I never felt rejected by either my mother or father. …

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