Australasian Science: Australia's authority on science since 1938

Retirement Time

By Tim Olds

Retirement is fun, but is it because you do what you like or because you like what you do?

The great life transitions – going to school, starting work, cohabiting, having children, empty nest – all involve forced changes in how we use our time. The mother of a small child is no longer free to go to the gym, let alone sleep in. When children leave home (these days I should say if), parents are freed from the requirement to tidy up after them, chauffeur them from place to place, and cook their dinners. They just keep paying for them.

But no life transition affects time use as much as retirement. One day you will wake up and realise that you no longer need to spend an hour travelling to work, 8 hours chained to your machinery or your desk, and another hour getting back. One of the great ironies of retirement is that just when you are about to enter a realm where time is in almost infinite supply, your colleagues give you a watch.

We followed 139 sexagenarians as they went through the retirement transition. As you would expect, the nature of their days changed. For a start, they did less work (about 2 hours less each day, averaged across the week). That doesn’t count swapping work activities (such as sitting and talking in office meetings) for similar non-work activities (such as sitting and talking at home). They also spent about half an hour less travelling. The time void was filled in by more more chores (1 hour), more sleep (half an hour), more reading (half an hour) and more TV (half an hour).

A recent study of German retirees between 1994 and 2014 found strikingly similar patterns: retirees slept 40 minutes more each day, were 10% more likely to exercise and went to the doctor four times less each year compared with their working peers of the same age. The change in sleep, by the way, was almost always because they got up later rather than going to bed earlier.

We also found a big jump in overall happiness as soon as they retired, which was undiminished 12 months later. This wasn’t entirely unexpected. Before retirement, work activities ranked lowest on the enjoyment scale of all activities: they averaged 6.7 out of 10, even below chores (6.8) and way behind physical activity (8.0) and sleep (7.5). Filing (5.5) ranked lowest of all. So less work, more sleep – who wouldn’t be happier?

But we found something else: retirees also rated the same things they did before retirement as being more enjoyable after retirement. Gardening, reading, doing the ironing and even cleaning the bathroom were considered more enjoyable 12 months after retirement than a few months before.

We could calculate how much of their increase in happiness was due to doing more of what they liked and how much was due to liking more what they did. We did this by calculating how much their enjoyment would have improved with their new time schedule, but using their pre-retirement enjoyment ratings. It turns out that only 20% of the increase in enjoyment was because retirees did more of what they like, while 80% was due to the fact they liked more what they did.

Why might this be so? A person can be cooking the same breakfast, taking the same amount of time in the same kitchen but enjoying it so much more after retirement than before. It may be that the impending trip to work casts a long shadow over the cooking, or that the cook feels time-pressured, or that cooking breakfast is seen as just another task that has to be done before getting to work. Context means a lot for happiness: autonomy, flexibility and choice make life more enjoyable.

Retirement is actually a relatively recent invention. Government pensions for retirees didn’t appear until the late 1800s, first in Germany and followed soon after by Australia. At the time, it wasn’t a high-risk strategy to provide pensions: retirees weren’t expected to last long. In 1955, the year of my birth, the pension age was 65. At age 65 I could expect to live 10 years on the pension. Should I retire in 2020 I can expect to enjoy 20 years on the pension, should I need it. Hence the drive to raise the retirement age.

So retirement is good for us, but the government doesn’t want us to retire. What’s new, you might ask?

Well, there seems to be one way out of this dilemma. If retirement is good for people, why not give them a little bit of it before they actually retire by having a long process of graded retirement — working three days, then two, then one day a week for example? That way quasi-retirees may experience some of the benefits of retirement while the government gets some of their taxes.

Better than a watch, anyway.

Professor Tim Olds leads the Health and Use of Time Group at the Sansom Institute for Health Research, University of South Australia. He has received modest funding from Coca-Cola to present at a conference in Dubai, and Coke once sent him a nice basket of fruit in appreciation of a presentation he gave to executives. He is part of a multinational study funded by Coca-Cola, but neither he nor his institution is directly remunerated by Coca-Cola or any other food company.