“Retirement” is most often associated with concepts of work and the individual (Shultz & Wang, 2011), but easily could extend to activity of any sort or even existence itself, and by extension, wider society. Historically speaking, the issue of what to do when people live to a “ripe old age” has been addressed through strategies varying from veneration to ostracism. Retirement and its conferral of state benefits to older workers was a concept invented by Chancellor Otto von Bismarck of Germany?in 1883, in part as a response to rising Marxism in Europe. The chosen age of 65 to receive benefits was expedient, as few in that era reached that age. The concept of retirement from productivity received scientific endorsement from Professor William Osler, physician-in-chief at John’s Hopkins University, who in a 1905 valedictory address spoke of the “15 years of plenty”, the productive period of workers between the ages of 25 and 40, stating that productivity and creativity waned substantially in subsequent years. Interestingly, in that same year Sigmund Freud delivered his famous verdict that age 50 was too old for analysis (and presumably psychotherapy) – when he himself was 49 years of age.

We now live in an age where longevity is increasing in both the developed and the developing world (Cohen, 2003). Within 5 years the number of persons aged 60+ will outstrip those aged 5 and under for the first time in history (UN, 2005), and governments in many countries are urging citizens to work into their 70’s. In fact we have a longevity indicator, “healthy working life expectancy” or HWLE, with which to measure the number of years between ages 50 and 70 that persons spend in health and at work – and at least in Europe people are leaving the workforce while still in good health (Lievre et al, 2007). We may be seeing a global trend for older persons to shun traditional retirement stereotypes of endless leisure, in part fueled by the development of retirement communities in America in the 1960’s, instead choosing a variety of ways to maintain or increase their activity and engagement with society.

Choosing engagement over passive retirement mirrors a shift in theories of ageing, which have evolved from more passive to active. Disengagement theory?(which viewed aging as a process of withdrawal both beneficial and expected by society) has given way to activity theories espousing the health and psychosocial benefits of keeping active and ageing well. In particular, Baltes and Baltes’ (1990) Selection, Optimisation and Compensation (SOC) theory of ageing offers insights into older adults’ active and strategic choices in the pursuit of goals and goal attainment in later life, important as this stage of life is as a high risk period for both acute and chronic health issues.

While older adults themselves have changed their stance towards traditional conceptualisations of retirement by embracing volunteerism, mentoring, consulting and general engagement, some industry and health organisations have begun to rethink retirement as well, offering flexible continuing working arrangements and an emphasis on preventative health strategies. The American Association of Retired Persons in 1999 changed its name officially to its acronym, AARP, in recognition that many of its members were not retired. But many organisations have not taken up such innovations, and many older adults still feel trapped by their peers and by society in living out a stereotypical retirement.

Lack of utilization of the intellectual, financial and social capital that an ageing population represents is a serious challenge to Australia, given our ageing population. Will we as a society fail to challenge the 17th century Puritan Cotton Mather’s exhortation to “Be so wise as to disappear of your own Accord,” ? “Be glad of dismission. . . . Be pleased with the Retirement which you are dismissed into.”?(Mather, cited in Fischer, 1978)? We need to reconsider our concepts of retirement and of old age itself, in order to accommodate a large number of active – and working (voluntarily or for pay) – people aged into their 70s or beyond, as well as accommodating people in frail health who may be closer to our stereotypes of retired people.

People want to contribute, but are there attitudinal, organizational, and societal barriers to doing so? Peak organisations concerned with vitality in later years, from National Seniors to the University of the Third Age, provide support in Australia. But there is still much wasted opportunity and potential. There is certainly room for consideration of how older people can contribute to all aspects of society, without prejudice or discrimination, but also without pressure. Encouraging active ageing may not be enough to challenge organizational and societal barriers. The potential payoff for the individual, for organisations of all kinds, and for society more broadly are great.

This workshop will bring together prominent researchers and thought leaders in psychology, health sciences, business, economics, government and social policy, to debate and work though challenges posed by restrictive “retirement” practices, attitudes and stereotypes. This two day workshop will comprise small working groups and whole-group panels, with an aim of producing a series of outputs (including an edited book) to address the following aims:

  1. What national and international research best informs a forward-thinking shift in the concept of “retirement”?
  2. Are changes at the level of language / arbitrary age brackets / societal stereotypes / workplace strategy / public policy achievable to progress from “retirement” to “re-engagement” as the norm?
  3. How can individual difference as well as population level research inform us about the ingredients necessary for healthy, happy and productive later years?
  4. How can innovations in retirement research, practice and policy be fostered in Australia?
  5. What would 2, 5 and 10 year plans look like to achieve these goals with respect to research, education, practice and policy in Australia?

Our featured speaker, Professor Mo Wang, Department of Management, University of Florida, specializes in the research area of retirement and older worker employment; he can only attend in a late-May 2013 timeslot. He is a prominent and active international scholar and editor of the Oxford Handbook of Retirement and co-editor of a recent special issue on retirement in American Psychologist.


  • Baltes, P. B., & Baltes, M. M. (1990). Psychological perspectives on successful aging: The model of selective optimization with compensation. In P. B. Baltes & M. M. Baltes (Eds.),?Successful aging: Perspectives from the behavioral sciences?(pp. 1–34). New York: Cambridge University Press.
  • Cohen, J. E. (2003). Human population: The next half century. Science, 302, 1172-1175.
  • Lievre A, Jusot F, Barnay T, Sermet C, Brouard N, Robine JM, Brieu MA, Forette F. (2007). Healthy working life expectancies at age 50 in Europe: a new indicator. J Nutr Health Aging, 11(6), 508-14.
  • Mather, Cotton, cited in D.H. Fischer, Growing Old in America, pp. 43. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 1978.
  • United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs, Population Division. World Population Prospects. The 2004 Revision. New York : United Nations, 2005
  • Shultz, K. S., & Wang, M. (2011). Psychological perspectives on the changing nature of retirement. American Psychologist, 66(3), 170-179.