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Individual Differences perspective on Retirement

Globally, life expectancy age is rising, with the average age has increased by 5.5 years during this century, to currently being 72 (WHO, 2016). Although being a great development in and of itself, the so-called ‘greying of society’ comes with societal challenges as well. Ordinarily, parents take care of their children when they are young, who at their turn look after their parents when they grow old; the societal equivalent being the working class bringing in tax money which helps ensure a minimal financial standard of living for the retired. In order for such a system to work, a balance has to be warranted between the fiscal costs of living of the retired and the capital brought in by those still a part of the labour force.

Worldwide, in countries in which such a governmental social service exists, it is common that a fixed retirement age is put in place. Currently, the Netherlands is rated to have the best, most financially secure system worldwide (Melbourne Mercer Global Pension Index, 2019). However, even in the Netherlands, the debate regarding the retirement age has been a hot issue for years, with a policy of a gradual increase of the pre-determined retirement age having faced heavy resistance. Nevertheless, such an increase will be required in order for the system to maintain its financial stability. Particularly when you consider that by 2040, in the Netherlands, 25% of all people will be above retirement age. Similarly, for the countries lower in the ranking, one of the largest points of critique already currently is a need to increase the retirement age in order for the system to be financially sustainable.

For something as unique as someone’s working life, it is interesting to notice how little individual differences are taken into account when considering the end-point of one’s career. Across all countries in which a policy framework for retirement has been set-up, the only individual difference that is taken into account in a few of the countries is gender. Paradoxically, the countries that make a distinction based on gender all have a lower retirement age for women as opposed to men, despite the average life expectancy of women being higher all across the world. Overall, it can be seen that the end-point of one’s career is determined mostly based on sociological – abstract – measures, such as the supply of labour force and fiscal costs of ageing; overstepping the individual reality of the worker.

When considering such reality, a set end-point poses a constraint, which can heavily influence the way an individual looks at the rest of his or her remaining career. Theoretically, the Future Time Perspective theory describes the way individuals look upon their future. Cognitively, the perception regarding remaining opportunities to grow out in one’s job has an influence, together with expected difficulties and challenges expected in the remaining time left. Generally speaking, it can be seen that less time perceived to have left narrows the mind, as there is less time remaining to still grow and develop.

Such diminishing of motivation towards the later stage of an individual’s career can be seen in both the employer as well as the employee. For the employee, prior research has established lower promotion focus, lower motivation to grow out in one’s job and lower motivation to continue working in general (Kooij & Bal, 2014). With a set end-point approaching -and your environment expecting you to retire anytime soon – you start working towards the end. Unfortunately, accumulated experience hereby goes to waste. Similarly, also from the perspective of the employer, it becomes more of value to invest in training of younger personnel rather than provide managerial training to individuals who are set to leave the company and retire due to a set end-point either way.

However, when purely considering the effect of age on work attitudes and performance, evidence of a different picture can be found (Kooij et al., 2011). Specifically, an association has been established between age and beneficial work attitudes as well as performance. For example, an increase in age has been shown to be associated with lower amounts of burn-outs, higher job engagement and involvement, higher trust and commitment towards the organization one works for as well as higher feelings of perceived fairness at work.

Similarly, on the performance side, an effect on aspects such as higher commitment to safety measures, less absenteeism, less counterproductive work behaviour and overall higher core task performance has been found. Taken together, it can thus be said that older employee’s in general hold more favourable work attitudes with better performance, whereas an approaching end-point of a career limits perceived motivation for further growth and lowers further desire to continue working.

Therefore, it could be considered whether a general end-point based on chronological age is a sensible approach or a more individual-based approach should be considered. When an end of a career becomes a question rather than a given, the motivation to invest in training programs together with mental and physical resilience programs for employees could be greatly enhanced. Investing in the health of ageing employees can ensure their employment, providing the company with committed, experienced employees. Such an approach could contribute towards a healthier greying of the population.

At the same time, financial stability potentially could be improved with an individual-based approach, when a higher level of control regarding the end-point of one’s career is given to the individual. Rather than a fixed end-point, it could be transformed into a possibility of retiring once an individual has reached an age corresponding with 80% of the average life expectancy, i.e. being 80% of 81,5 in the Netherlands, thus 65.2 years of age. Not only could such a more flexible endpoint be more durable with the increasing average life expectancy over time, but it could also provide the opportunity for individuals that feel motivated and capable to continue working, to do so.

At the same time, rather than limiting the time left, this could motivate employers as well as governments to look for ways to provide an individual with opportunities to remain employed. For example, for someone who has worked a life of manual labour incapable to continue doing so at old age, yet rather being provided with a task rather than having to sit at home in retirement, opportunities to pursue training to be able to utilize the acquired experience in different ways could be offered. Potentially, the increase in growth opportunities in later stages of an individual’s career could have a positive effect on the balance between those retired and those still a part of the labour force.

When paying attention to the unique individual rather than the overall group he or she belongs to, unique opportunities otherwise not there can be seen. Rather than being limited regardless of individual strengths and capacities, such strengths can be made useful, attention to the individual thereby being potentially beneficial to the overall society.


Kooij, D. T., De Lange, A. H., Jansen, P. G., Kanfer, R., & Dikkers, J. S. (2011). Age and work‐related motives: Results of a meta‐analysis. Journal of Organizational Behavior32(2), 197-225.
Kooij, D. T., Bal, P. M., & Kanfer, R. (2014). Future time perspective and promotion focus as determinants of intraindividual change in work motivation. Psychology and ageing29(2), 319.
Melbourne Mercer Global Pension Index (2019) Melbourne Mercer Global Pension Index, Monash Centre for Financial Studies, Melbourne.
World health statistics overview (2019) Monitoring health for the SDGs: sustainable development goals. Geneva: World Health Organization, WHO/DAD/2019.1. Licence: CC BY-NC-SA 3.0 IGO. Source of picture:

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