When I'm Sixty what? Shifting meanings of work and retirement


So, the headlines are at it again. Anyone reading The Times on Friday will have seen a headline suggesting that “UK retirement age could hit 68 in the 2030s under pension plan.” Well, it depends on what we mean by retirement and whose choice it is.

Since 2011 and largely thanks to a campaign by Age UK, with some exceptions, employers can’t force you to retire at a particular age. It’s true, there are specific ages at which people are eligible to start claiming their UK State Pension – but being able to claim your State Pension, and ‘retiring’ are two different things.

So, what’s to celebrate? Is the loss of an obligation to retire in your sixties a victory for civil liberties in a golden age of ‘the super-agers’? Or is there much to lament in the stealthy drive to keep people off a publicly funded life of leisure throughout their golden years?

People will argue for both. In France there has been much social unrest at proposals to raise the minimum retirement (yes, retirement) age from 62 to 64.

In 2016, prior Covid and ‘the cost of living crisis’, University of Minnesota researchers Erik Kojola and Phyllis Moen published a study on the already observable changes in patterns of retirement in older people.

Kojola and Moen conducted in-depth interviews with working and retired white-collar ‘Boomers’ – people now in their late 50s and 60s. They explored how they are working and the meanings and motivations for their decisions and plans in their later careers.

Note that the study is on ‘white collar’ workers – a study that included blue collar workers may have yielded different results.  

Kojola and Moen found that there was no dominant pattern for retirement, but rather a diverse mix of pathways shaped by individual occupational identities, finances, health and perceptions of retirement.

Everyone is different.

They found that Boomers express a desire to have control over their time and to find meaning and purpose in either paid or unpaid activities– nice if you are drawing a state or other pensions or passive incomes that are paying for the down time.

However, increasing pension access ages, volatility in markets used to deliver personal pensions, a turbulent global economy, and a degree of ageism in places mean that as Boomers move through their 50s and 60s they can no longer rely on secure and stable employment or retirement.

On the one hand, a golden age of fulfilling work as you want it; on the other, a life of purgatory as you struggle to make ends meet and serve as a viable economic unit even as your capacity to do so diminishes.

Perhaps one thing is sure - since Kojola and Moen published their study in 2016, the political and economic reasons for many people being engaged in some kind of work activity rather than a traditional ‘ leisurely retirement’ appear not to have diminished.  


Kojola, E. & Moen, P. (2016). No more lock-step retirement: Boomers' shifting meanings of work and retirement. Journal of Aging Studies. 36. P.p.59-70.

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