Cover Story

After 26 years as a counseling psychology professor at the University of Maryland, Nancy K. Schlossberg, EdD, was ready to retire. But she was hardly ready to slow down.

She looked forward to having more flexibility and freedom in her schedule to explore other interests. Still, there was the question of what her new identity would be--important to her given how long she'd been "Nancy Schlossberg, professor at the University of Maryland." So she reinvented herself as an author and consultant on life transitions.

"Retirement can be a roller coaster because you are changing so much about your life--your work role, your relationships, your daily routines, your assumptions about yourself," Schlossberg says. "All that is in flux, and it takes awhile to get comfortable with a new life."

Many other professionals, including psychologists, have similar experiences. Some even opt to start a completely new career, like former military psychologist Ernie Lenz, PhD, who retired and joined the Peace Corps to teach children about health (see page 84, "The call of duty"). Or, some retirees may opt to volunteer, explore new hobbies, spend time with family or continue to work part time, as a professor, for example--like psychologist Lewis Lipsitt, PhD (see page 86, "Elderbears: Out of the retirement cave").

Such people don't fit the traditional definition of retirement, which according to Webster's Dictionary means the "withdrawal from one's position or occupation or from active working life." Indeed, the word no longer captures the current generation of older adults, says Schlossberg, author of the self-help book, "Retire Smart, Retire Happy: Finding Your True Path in Life" (APA, 2004).

"Retirement implies that you're just leaving something; it doesn't reflect that you're going to something," Schlossberg says. "But it is really a career change. You are leaving something that has been your primary involvement, and you are moving to something else."

Planning for retirement

APA has set out to help psychologists, and people in general, with that move through president Diane Halpern's presidential initiative (see page 82, "No desire to fully retire") and the APA Committee on Aging's "Road Map to Aging" (see page 80, "Retirement's road map").

Such efforts are critical, Schlossberg says, because while many often prepare their financial portfolio for retirement, they often neglect planning for their psychological portfolio. That portfolio requires considering, for example, how a retiree's identity and relationships--such as strains on marriage as the couple finds one another in each other's space more--may affect retirement.

Furthermore, older adults are best off planning for a balanced portfolio of activities--volunteer work, continuing education, exercise and the like--to enjoy in a new phase of life, says Norman Abeles, PhD, a psychology professor at Michigan State University and a former APA president who helped establish APA's Office on Aging in 1998.

As such, planning for retirement may require a focus on self-management throughout a person's career, according to a model of career development by psychologist Harvey Sterns, PhD, the director of the Institute for Life-Span Development and Gerontology at the University of Akron.

In his model, employees become the focal point of when and how to retire and weigh factors--such as work, community, self and family--that may affect their choice to retire. More specifically, they might consider how they are viewed by their supervisors and perceive job growth opportunities; their relationship to family and any caregiving responsibilities they may have; what in the community may be keeping them there or their sense of belonging within the community; and how their past self and values relate to the possibilities of new friends and activities in their future self.

Finding a path

After all, no two retirees are the same, Sterns says, and multiple pathways exist to get from work to retirement.

"There is no right way to retire," Sterns says. "Many people think retirement is wonderful, and for people who want to retire, that's the right thing to do. If they don't want to, that's the right thing, too."

As for the 62-year-old Sterns, he has passed up three buyouts at his university to stay on as an institute director--now in his 28th year there and in his 34th year as a psychology professor.

"I still continue to work because I enjoy my work," Sterns says. It runs in his family, too. His father worked until age 72, then went part-time until 85.

As such, retirement can take many forms, Schlossberg notes. In fact, she identified the following six based on her interviews with about 100 retirees:

  • Continuers stay connected with past skills and activities, but modify them to fit retirement, such as through volunteering or part-time work in their former field.

  • Adventurers start new activities or learn new skills not related to their past work, such as learning to play the piano or taking on an entirely new job.

  • Searchers learn by trial and error as they look for a niche; they have yet to find their identity in retirement.

  • Easy gliders enjoy unscheduled time and like their daily schedule "to go with the flow."

  • Involved spectators maintain an interest in their previous field of work but assume different roles, such as a lobbyist who becomes a news junkie.

  • Retreaters become depressed, retreat from life and give up on finding a new path--the only negative path in Schlossberg's classification.

The path retirees choose after retirement isn't necessarily the path they stay on either, Schlossberg says.

"It's an evolving part of your career development," Schlossberg explains. "And the longer you live, the more your path will shift and change."

Take psychologist Thomas J. Fagan, PhD, for example, who epitomizes a continuer. Fagan was eligible for retirement at age 50 from the Federal Bureau of Prisons--where he had held a range of positions from psychology administrator for the Northeast region to chief hostage negotiator.

At first, Fagan admits, retirement took some adjustment as he missed contact with his professional colleagues and being in the action of policy and program development.

"I moved from being a big fish in a little pond to just a fish alone," Fagan says.

To change that, Fagan took steps to stay involved professionally. He now teaches psychology classes at Randolph-Macon College and the University of Mary Washington in Virginia, consults occasionally in corrections and law enforcement, and writes books. For example, he wrote a book about his experiences in hostage negotiations, "Negotiating Correctional Incidents: A Practical Guide" (American Correctional Association, 2003).

"I'm doing some of the things that I never had time to do," says Fagan, now in his fifth year of retirement. "It's a wonderful life in retirement."

Psychologists Kenneth Gergen, PhD, and Mary Gergen, PhD, publish the Positive Aging Newsletter, which is dedicated to research and practice on aging. The newsletter also occasionally addresses retirement issues. To subscribe, visit www.healthandage.com.

Further Reading

  • Hedge, J., Borman, W., & Lammlein, S. (2004). The aging workforce. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.

  • Schlossberg, N. (2004). Retire smart, retire happy: Finding your true path in life. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.

  • Sterns, H., & Kaplan, J. (2003). Self-management of career and retirement. In G.A. Adams & T.A. Beehr (Eds.), Retirement: Reasons, processes and results. (pp. 188-213). New York: Springer Publishing.

  • Qualls, S.H., & Abeles, N. (Eds.). (2000) Psychology and the aging revolution: How we adapt to longer life. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.