Encyclopedia of Gerontology and Population Aging

Living Edition
| Editors: Danan Gu, Matthew E. Dupre

Retirement Patterns

  • Leng Leng ThangEmail author
Living reference work entry
DOI: https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-319-69892-2_173-1



With longer life expectancy and changing patterns of work, retirement has become a predictable key stage in one’s life course. Retirement refers to one’s exit from the workforce and is commonly associated with the beginning of old age and inactivity (Kohli et al. 1991). However, individuals may perceive themselves as “retired,” or to have assumed the new social status as a retiree for various reasons, including exiting from a career, working less, becoming a pension recipient, simply being willing to identify as a retiree, or a combination of the above factors (Ekerdt and Sergeant 2006; Erber 2010).


Retirement patterns is defined as the delineation of different forms where retirement takes place. It may include patterns about when, how and “to what to retire” (Wang et al. 2013). Such patterns are often complex, intersecting with individual circumstances and larger structural limitations as pull and push factors to influence opportunities and outcome (Jensen et al. 2018; Maltby et al. 2004). In the literature, the study of retirement patterns is synonymous with research on retirement transition, pathways, process, trends, and preferences, which together contribute to further our understanding of the diversities and changes impacting retirement.


When to Retire: A Shift from Early to Later Retirement from the 1970s to 1990s

Despite the common trend for national retirement systems in Western advanced economies to set age 65 as the stipulated retirement age, in the 1970s and 1980s, early retirement became a discernible widespread trend among these countries. Kolhi et al.’s well-cited edited volume focusing on early retirement experiences in different countries developed the concept of retirement “pathways” to explore how early retirement pattern became permitted.

A pathway is an institutional arrangement of – in most cases – a combination of different institutional arrangements that are sequentially linked to manage …the period between exit from work and entry into the normal old-age pension system. (Kohli et al. 1991, p. 61).

They also examined how – with the point of retirement becoming uncertain and heterogeneous in early retirement pattern – the life course is becoming de-standardized and (re)individualized. Such unsettling life course process have shown to continue even as retirement preference shifted away from early exit.

The turning point in retirement preference came in the 1990s when countries began to realize that rapid aging population and the dwindling younger population would bring serious implications on the social security burden and overall supply of labor. Among the countries in the European Union, the reversal in retirement policy towards encouragement and support for an extension in working lives has notably emerged around the “active aging” framework (Walker 2006). Although the concept of active aging, widely defined according to WHO (2002, p. 12) as “the process of optimizing opportunities for health, participation and security in order to enhance quality of life as people age”, provides a holistic framework perceiving being active in old age beyond absolute economic terms, it has often been applied from a narrow productivist perspective which tends to prioritize extending the working lives (Foster and Walker 2015).

The range of reforms since the 1990s to discourage early retirement contributed to an upturn in employment rates of older workers in various EU countries (Taylor 2010; Ebbinghaus and Hofacker 2013). However, analyzing from the Lisbon Strategy, Rodriguez et al. (2000) have argued that the increase in employment was driven by rising atypical employment contracts, including fixed-term contracts and part-time contracts which imply less stable wages. In the USA, the removal of mandatory retirement in 1987, a shift away from defined-benefit (DB) to employee directed defined-contribution (DC) pension plans, coupled with changes in technology, the nature of jobs and longevity have all increased the attractiveness to stay longer in the work force (Cahill et al. 2006).

How to Retire: Pathways in Transition Retirement

With changes in the patterns of labor force withdrawal, instead of a one-off event, retirement is increasingly recognized as a process involving transitional retirement with various pathways, including bridge jobs, phased retirement (reductions in hours on the career job), and reentry after a period of withdrawal from the workforce (Cahill et al. 2015). Challenging the idea of retirement, alternate pathways to reinvent retirement (Freedman 1999) and unretirement (Farrell 2016) have also surfaced, representing new ways of staying productive such as through volunteer work, new careers, and ventures. These transitions reflect the increasing flexibility of retirement and work in later life. While positive on the one hand, the part-time or unstable nature of work may destabilize income and work conditions disadvantaging older workers (Taylor 2010). An understanding of work and retirement in the case of South Korea below elucidates the precarious situation that may face older workers in insecure transition retirement pathways.

South Korea has one of the most rapidly aging population and low fertility rate (Higo and Klassen 2014). Korea’s contractual age of mandatory retirement is usually determined by employers and commonly set at age 58 or younger (Shin 2014). The practice of “honorable retirement” in Korea necessitates retiring workers on age-related grounds through work restructuring and informal mechanisms (such as peer pressure) further contributed to the norm of retiring prior to the contractual age of retirement (Shin 2014). With an immature national pension system started only in 1988, it has become necessary for Korean workers to undergo the retirement transition where they continue to work as irregular or self-employed workers after retirement from the company where they had spent the longest years working. Although in 2013, the revised law raised mandatory retirement age for all companies to 60 by 2017 (ibid.), more efforts are required to ensure effectiveness of the legal retirement age.

Key Research Findings

Retirement Patterns: One-Off, Gradual, and Socially Productive

The three retirement patterns discussed below consider the embeddedness of when, how, and to what to retire in determining retirement choice opportunities (Jensen et al. 2018) to better capture both the typicality and diversity surrounding retirement as part of the life course.

The One-Off Retirement Pattern and Leisure Life

The act of retirement as a one-off withdrawal from the workforce is a traditional pattern typically expected to be the dominant experience of older workers as they reach mandatory retirement age. The single transition from employment to retirement might be thought of as an ideal scenario symbolizing the entrance into a rewarding period of life where one can relax and enjoy the fruits of early labor (Atchley 1982).

Being a pensioner does not necessarily relate to old age and inactivity, the trend of early retirement, coupled with the growing affluence of retirees with prolonged prosperity and better health has gradually de-linked retirement with such assumptions. Instead, from the consumption perspective, the image of wealthy and healthy retirees has transformed retirement into a new stage of life endowed with leisure. In the USA, age-segregated retirement communities such as the Sun City established in late 1950s are representations of active later life communities for the retired leisure class (Freedman 1999). In the international retirement migration literature, retirees are typically perceived as “amenity-seekers,” and many from the USA and Northern Europe have chosen to move to Southern Europe to enjoy a warmer climate, leisure amenities, and services (King et al. 2000; Warnes 2009). Since the 1990s, retirement migration destinations have expanded to Asia, such as Thailand and Malaysia (Green 2015; Howard 2008). Such a phenomenon is also observable among Japanese retirees to destinations like Australia and Southeast Asian countries (Thang et al. 2012; Ono 2009).

In the last decade, scholarly attention on the diversity in international retirement migration has led to the suggestion of a new form of “precarity migration,” found among some Western and Japanese retirees who were motivated to migrate due to financial, social, caregiving, and/or emotional issues. This highlights the need to recognize heterogeneity in the experiences of retirement (Bender et al. 2018; Toyota and Thang 2017).

Gradual Retirement Pattern and Transition Employment

Contrary to the one-off dramatic withdrawal to an irreversible nonworking status, studies on retirement transition have consistently observed a prevalence of “blurred” (vs. “crisp”) exits from the work force (Mutchler et al. 1997; Cahill et al. 2015). Such blurring of retirement is expressed varyingly as partial, phased, transition, flexible, semi- and gradual retirement. Here, the term gradual retirement is chosen to be inclusive and to capture the direction towards full retirement with each employment transition.

Gradual retirement is a known feature characterizing retirement in Korea as a process of continuing work in flexible employment. With irregular work resulting in frequent shifts between being employed and unemployed (or temporarily retired), it often became unclear when would one reach ultimate retirement. Even among Korean retirees who migrated to Southeast Asia, instead of living as amenity-seeking migrants, they were often more motivated in seeking economic opportunity overseas to sustain their daily living (Kim and Thang 2016). Such a phenomenon emphasizes the significance of economic security postretirement and hence the lack of it as a main determining factor encouraging gradual retirement.

Socially Productive Retirement

The third pattern of retirement focuses more on “to what to retire” – postretirement activities classified as socially productive. These activities – such as engaging as volunteers in the community, lifelong learning, and caring for grandchildren are increasingly recognized as having a positive impact on older persons’ well-being from the active and productive aging frameworks (Anderson et al. 2014; Baker et al. 2005; Hinterlong et al. 2007; Chen et al. 2011). They are also noted for bringing huge economic benefit for the society (Sun 2013; Salamon et al. 2011).

Referring to examples of volunteering engagements by retirees in the USA, such as intergenerational mentoring, Freedman (1999) shows that giving back to society is not just about personal fulfillment and well-being but also creates lasting social impact by making a difference in the lives of their mentees and promoting social renewal. Lifelong learning is another activity that has become increasingly accessible for older adults encouraged in active and productive aging policies. Besides learning for self-development, it provides opportunities for connecting with work and skills retraining, as well as equipping participants for volunteer services (ibid.).

The socially productive retirement pattern is meaningful and valuable for the individual and society, as part of new visions to reinvent retirement (Freedman 1999) and unretirement (Farrell 2016), they redefine old age and reduce ageism.

Future Directions of Research

When contemplating future retirement patterns, the pressure of population aging and financial security are leading to predictions of a future scenario of longer working lives with a gradual retirement pattern favoring flexible work. However, as the Korean work and retirement pattern cautions us, the financial instability from flexible retirement may instead become an inflexible non-option of less desirable later working life and retirement further discriminating older persons (Taylor 2010). More research is necessary to understand the nature of transition employment and flexible work, as well as their impact on different socioeconomic groups and gender in cross-national contexts. Besides theorizing retirement patterns, research should also inform work and retirement policies to challenge age discrimination and inequality.

Finally, in the context of longevity, technological advance, and diversity in aspirations among baby boomers, there is a need for more research to explore how can retirement pathways be a fulfilling experience. With calls to redefine flexible retirement/work-life patterns by “blurring” traditional life stages (Featherstone and Hepworth 1990; Riley and Riley 2000), policy measures that eliminate mandatory retirement age, and the emerging notions such as unretirement and reinventing retirement which challenges retirement, it will soon be time to seriously question if the term “retirement” is still necessary.


This chapter providing an understanding on retirement patterns underscores the diversity in the patterns of when, how, and “to what to retire” impacted by larger structural limitations, policy changes, individual circumstances, and preferences. The three retirement patterns of one-off, gradual, and social productive retirement patterns gathered from the literature further provide a summarized delineation of the typicality and diversity surrounding retirement as part of the life course that are expected to be redefined with new ideas calling for more efforts to encourage flexible retirement/work-life patterns and address age discrimination and inequality.



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Copyright information

© Springer Nature Switzerland AG 2019

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of Japanese StudiesNational University of SingaporeSingaporeSingapore

Section editors and affiliations

  • Li-Hsuan Huang
    • 1
  1. 1.Department of EconomicsNational Central UniversityChungliTaiwan