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15 Oct. 2013 | Comments (0)

The Society of Actuaries recently conducted focus groups to learn more about the decisions made by people who have retired voluntarily in the last few years. The research team felt that two findings offered new insights:

• Many voluntary retirement decisions were the result of a push.

• There were very big differences in experiences and perceptions by gender.

Decisions about retirement:

• “When the company reorganized and showed that they weren’t interested in people my age and opportunities came and went.  Opportunities came to younger people and to me it was a sign that you’d better start thinking about it.” ~Female, Chicago

• ”But the last four years, I used to run big presses, and it was getting too much for my knees physically.  If you have an office job, you can probably work until you're 70-75.  But you can't do manual work like that.” ~Male, Phoenix

While the participants said that they had retired voluntarily, most had been nudged into retirement due to the work becoming too difficult, the workplace becoming less pleasant, health challenges, or the need to provide care-giving. Few retired to meet their dreams, pursue a hobby, or start a business. Yet, most of them were enjoying frequent travel. They described workplace difficulties, such as jobs that were physically difficult, messages from their employer that they perceived as “encouraging” them to retire, and challenges in working with younger supervisors, among others.

Typically, the retirement decision is assumed to consist of a clear distinction between voluntary and involuntary retirement. The stories in these focus groups indicate that much so-called voluntary retirement is actually the result of a “push,” and that the distinction between voluntary and involuntary retirement is not necessarily clear-cut for middle-income retirees. This study focused on middle-market retirees who are financially resource constrained. Results may or may not be different for retirees with higher income and asset levels. The research team believes that the lack of a clear distinction between voluntary and involuntary retirement is a new finding, and one that should be of interest to human resource professionals.

Differences by gender:

The focus groups were separated by gender. The women had different motivations for retirement and seemed to have very different perceptions about how well off they were in retirement. Three of the actuaries who observed the focus group from outside of the room provided some comments about the differences:

Actuary 1: “I noticed the women were more involved in caregiving roles. Some had left their jobs for caregiving and others had taken on various caregiving roles since retiring. Of more concern, the women were using their financial resources to help in the caregiving duties. One woman recognized she did not have the resources to continue and expressed some regret for her past decisions.
Contrasted to the men, few men left their jobs for caregiving duties. In general, they did not express concerns and did not expect to take on caregiving roles. A few men had significant caregiving roles for their wives who had a debilitating disease.”

Actuary 2: “Most of the men in the Baltimore group said they did not think much at all about life expectancy since there was no use in trying to predict it. About half the women said they had thought about it, and those that hadn't, felt like they should.
Also, some of the men had trouble keeping busy, but that didn't come across from the women.”
Actuary 3: “Observing the two Chicago focus groups, I immediately noticed a change in tone and demeanor of the groups. The atmosphere in the men’s focus group was fairly easygoing, while the discussion became much more serious in the women’s group. The difference was striking.”

The researchers observe that the differences by gender were more striking that those which surfaced in several prior survey studies. The report includes many quotes from participants. I do not know if the differences by gender are surprising to others. I encourage readers to share their perceptions on this topic.
The report is titled: The Decision to Retire and Post-Retirement Financial Strategies, and it is available on the Society of Actuaries website. The purpose of this study is to gain understanding of how people make decisions about when to retire and about managing financial risks in retirement. The study is designed to help understand the rationale and process used in decision making. This is an important topic because whether people have sufficient assets and income for retirement is very dependent on when they decide to retire and how they expect to live during retirement. In addition, certain financial shocks will continue to occur in retirement –much like they did during a person’s working lifetime. There are also many non-financial decisions involved in the process.

This study was designed specifically to explore how individuals make retirement decisions in order to gain a better understanding of the process they used to make decisions, what steps were completed, how finances and other factors were considered in the decision and how successful they have been in their retirement years. Eight focus groups of financially resource constrained retirees who had retired voluntarily were interviewed.  Groups were separated by asset level ($50,000 - $150,000 and $200,000 - $400,000), sex and geographical locations.

A second post will offer more information on findings with regard to financial planning and decisions.


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The Society of Actuaries (SOA) Committee on Post-Retirement Needs and Risks has been working to improve the management of the post-retirement period for about 15 years.  As part of that work, it has studied how middle market Americans (generally those with less than $500,000 of net worth) make decisions about retirement and how they deal with key financial risks after retirement.  The SOA uses these results to help improve retirement security and the systems that support it. Results of research are communicated to the public, actuaries and others in an effort to help the public achieve a higher level of financial security.

  • About the Author: Anna M. Rappaport

    Anna M. Rappaport

    Anna Rappaport is an internationally recognized expert on the impact of change on retirement systems and workforce issues. Following a 28-year career with Mercer Human Resource Consulting, Rappaport h…

    Full Bio | More from Anna M. Rappaport


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