The role of life histories in retirement processes

In most developed countries, populations are aging rapidly due to the long-term decline of fertility and increasing longevity. Extending the working lives of older individuals is often perceived as a key policy response to population aging, putting the issue of retirement high on the policy as well as the scientific agenda. At the same time, the life course of individual persons has undergone major changes during the last several decades. The ‘standard life course’ – where paid work was central in the lives of male adults, housework and care tasks central in the lives of female adults, and couples stayed together until death – has become less self-evident, with the same applying to lifetime employment at a single employer. What consequences do these earlier life experiences in the work and family spheres have for the retirement-related decisions and experiences of older persons? To study this question, this survey paper reviews the scientific literature on the relationship between earlier life experiences and retirement of older adults. Subjects addressed include (a) important changes in the lives of individuals in the Netherlands and other countries during the last several decades, (b) theoretical starting points in the research on life histories and retirement, and (c) empirical findings in the international retirement literature. In general, the review of the literature suggests that life histories are important for an understanding of retirement-related decisions and experiences. Various earlier life events in both the work and family life spheres – such as career mobility and the experience of a divorce – have been shown to “set the stage” for the way older persons approach their later years. However, the empirical research on life histories and retirement is still rather fragmented. This paper presents various suggestions for future research to further improve our insights regarding the embedment of retirement in the life course of individual persons.

Netspar, Network for Studies on Pensions, Aging and Retirement, is een denktank en kennisnetwerk. Netspar is gericht op een goed geïnformeerd pensioendebat.


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