Research Stream 2: The contribution of social planning, participation, and continuity in adjustment

The above studies examine the importance of group identities to retirement. However, our ability to draw causal inferences is constrained by their correlational structure. To address this, Stream 2 will involve experimental studies, with specific and more general groups of retirees, to clarify the causal contribution of SIMIC pathways to adjustment (as in H1 to H5).

Participants and design

The studies involve a combination of quasi-experimental (Studies 3a and 3b) and experimental (Studies 4 and 5) designs with random assignment in the latter. Participant numbers and recruitment sites vary as a function of study, to provide sufficient power to test hypotheses. Independent variables are Emeritus/Continuing Status (Study 3a: sought vs. not sought), Retirement Residence (Study 3b: on vs. off campus), Social Participation (Study 4: new groups vs. no change), and Social Planning (Study 5: provided vs. not provided).

Measures and analysis

The main outcome measure in each study will be adjustment to retirement, based on the primary and secondary indices used in Study 2. This will be in addition to the demographic, financial, perceived health, other psychological (e.g., individual differences) and retirement related factors used in Stream 1. Additionally, given the centrality of cognitive integrity for continued productivity and successful aging in retirement, we will include a cognitive measure (the Brief Test of Adult Cognition by Telephone) indexing memory, fluency, reasoning and processing speed. Analysis will focus on identifying differences between the conditions, controlling for strength of workplace identity, health, individual differences and demographic factors.

Study 3: Workplace identity continuity and adjustment

SIMIC argues that multiple identities protect well-being by providing increased opportunity for identity continuity. In the retirement context this involves retaining one or more work-related groups and unpaid roles to support continuity of one’s work-related identities (either formal or informal). This is challenging in many professions, but not for academics who can seek to maintain their work-related identity by securing Emeritus or continuing status in various capacities post-retirement. Few professions provide such a unique form of continuity that allows people to continue to live out identity-defining work, in a similar capacity to that held prior to retirement. While studies 3a and 3b draw on a select sample, they take advantage of an established and widespread practice within a profession and across institutions, while controlling for the nature of the continuity experienced. Our remaining four studies focus on general populations of retirees.

Study 3 tests two SIMIC predictions.

  1. That controlling for centrality of workplace identity, academics who have Emeritus/continuing status or retire on campus, experience better adjustment than those who do not (as per H2).
  2. That academics who perceive greater compatibility between new identities and retained work-related identities will experience better adjustment (as per H5).

Study 3a tests these predictions in retired academics, with Emeritus/continuing and non-Emeritus/non-continuing status (where continuing status is relevant to American and Chinese academics) using online or paper-and-pencil surveys. Participants will be recruited through academic societies, University websites and Alumni associations, to capture all retired academics. We aim to recruit at least 100 participants from each study site in Australia, China, and the US.

Study 3b tests these predictions in Kansas University (KU) academics, to whom the institution offers the choice to reside on campus in dedicated accommodation post-retirement. This program allows a unique opportunity to further interrogate SIMICs identity continuity prediction. While the model predicts that enabling people to continue living out their valued work identity with other retirees on campus may enhance the transition (H2), it might also raise the salience of what people have lost through retirement and in this event have more negative consequences. This study will test both these possibilities, recruiting retired KU faculty, residing on (n=48 and off campus (n=48) through dedicated organizations (New Generations:, Endacott Society:

Study 4: Adjustment through social participation

A major consequence of retirement is the loss of potentially valued and important group memberships that may be difficult to continue outside of a work context. SIMIC proposes that this loss can be buffered by joining new meaningful groups (i.e., those that furnish members with a sense of social identity). Yet the efficacy of building new group memberships to enhance adjustment to retirement has yet to be demonstrated.

Study 4 addresses this question in Australian participants who have retired in the last 6 months (n=80), recruited through CI Pachana’s established networks with the Aging Mind Initiative’s 50+ network and the University of the Third Age, and from the community. Participants will be randomly assigned to either:

  1. take part in a workshop about the importance of group connectedness providing practical strategies to join new groups with contact details of potential groups to access in the local community, or
  2. receive the same amount of information provided in the above condition as part of a newsletter, but unrelated to social connectedness (e.g., about climate change), continuing their life-as-usual.

The workshop will take up to 90 minutes and be facilitated by a member of the research team. Participants will be encouraged to join at least two new groups, but the total number acquired in all conditions will be recorded just prior to the workshop or newsletter receipt, and then 3 months later. This design controls for delivery of novel information and will test the influence of new social identities relative to other factors such as individual differences, perceived health and demographics. SIMIC predicts better adjustment among those facilitated to join new groups (as per H4), providing they are compatible with existing groups (as per H5).

Study 5: The role of social planning in facilitating adjustment

Many are unprepared for the social changes that retirement imposes. In the case of financial planning, a range of services and programs are provided to educate people about managing their finances. However, there is no commensurate preparation for managing social network changes (although interventions have targeted goal setting and enhancing self-efficacy through mastery experience; Earl et al., 2015), nor the threat to one’s sense of meaning and purpose that loss of work-related identities entail. While the general assumption is that people manage these independently, evidence suggests this is not the case. Diminished social networks are identified as a major contributor to reduced well-being post-retirement (Encel & Studenki 1996; Monette 1996), and some retirees identify social stimulation as an important reason for returning to the workforce (Earl & Muratore, 2009). A major factor in the failure to provide education in this domain is the lack of a social framework to inform what should be the focus of social planning — a gap that SIMIC fills.

We recently developed and piloted an education and skills-based program, GROUPS FOR HEALTH (G4H), for people experiencing social isolation. Derived from SIMIC, this manualized program aims to provide people with knowledge and skills to manage their own social environment in productive ways. Findings from a pilot study (n=56) show that the program was successful in significantly reducing isolation, anxiety, stress and depression, and improving quality of life, subjective health, life satisfaction and self-esteem. Critically, these changes emerged in response to gains in social group membership that the program facilitated. Participants also rated the program as useful, indicating that they had learnt skills that they would use in future. This suggests that there is a basis for adapting this program for use in social planning for retirement.

Study 5 will test the efficacy of such a program — provisionally titled GROUPS FOR RETIREMENT (G4R) — for people about to retire. This will involve reducing the length of the G4H program by focusing on key elements relevant to retirees and designing a single workshop with relevant educational materials. These will address the importance of multiple group membership for well-being and adjustment to life change, and provide strategies and skills to both retain and join new groups that are likely to be compatible with each other.

Participants will be due to retire in the next 6 months and will be recruited from established contacts in

Australia (general staff from the university sector), the Aging Mind Initiative, and the general community. They will be randomly assigned to either receive the program (n=50) or not (n=50). The latter will experience retirement planning as usual. Measures used in Study 2 will be taken before the workshop, at retirement, and then 3 months later. Analysis will focus on identifying change from baseline in adjustment (allowing greater control for individual differences, job type, etc) and between-condition differences, also using path analyses to identify underlying mechanisms. We predict that those who participate in G4R will experience better adjustment and well-being in the retirement process. Additionally, these benefits should be enhanced to the extent that retirees (a) are members of multiple groups pre-retirement (H1), (b) maintain and join new groups post-retirement (H2 and H4), and (c) perceive their groups as compatible (H4).

Significance and Innovation

The proposed research addresses a critical issue of our time — how to adjust successfully to retirement. With the changing aging demographic, the number of people transitioning to retirement is increasing, as are the number of years people live in retirement. Enhanced life quality during these years contributes to better wellbeing and greater productivity. But not everyone negotiates this transition successfully. What we lack is a complete understanding of all social factors that promote successful adjustment, particularly those related to social group connections and social networks. The present research targets this issue, providing the means to both improve knowledge and to optimise social adjustment.

In meeting this agenda, we introduce three innovations.

  1. We provide a novel theoretically-derived analysis of adjustment to retirement as a process of social identity change. Existing literature acknowledges that retirement constitutes a major life change in which social factors play a role. What is absent is an appreciation of the specific importance of social group memberships in this process as these are known to contribute to self-definition, successful aging, and capacity to cope with life transition. This appreciation is central to the present proposal.
  2. We establish the generalizability of SIMIC using mixed methods, to understand the role of social group processes in different retirement contexts as experienced in Australia, America, the United Kingdom, and China. The present research is unique in examining this model in multiple countries, using experimental methods that directly address questions of causality.
  3. Testing the efficacy of a theory-derived social program that targets an important gap in planning for social changes in retirement. Speaking to its practical impact, the proposed research will provide a direct test of the GROUPS FOR RETIREMENT program that should provide an important framework for social planning in the retirement context.

Feasibility and Benefit

While the proposed research offers an ambitious investigation of the impact of social change on adjustment to retirement, there are five factors that contribute to its successful delivery.

  1. The team is exceptionally well placed to deliver the project successfully with expertise in aging (CI Pachana), program development (CIs C Haslam, Cruwys), social identity theorizing (CIs SA Haslam, Branscombe, C Haslam, Cruwys, and Steffens), application of SIMIC (CIs C Haslam, SA Haslam), and organizational psychology (CIs SA Haslam, Steffens).
  2. We have registered access to ELSA and HILDA datasets with which we are very familiar, having previously used them as the basis for three publications.
  3. Our research and organizational collaborations are well established to facilitate recruitment and data collection across the United States (PI Branscombe), China (collaborator Yang), and Australia (CIs CHaslam, SA Haslam, Pachana, Steffens, and Cruwys).
  4. GROUPS FOR RETIREMENT, draws on an extensively piloted program known to be effective, and provides a strong basis for its application to another significant life-changing context.
  5. We have maximized value for money in our project collaboration and management strategy.

Existing collaborations with Yang (through Chinese funded fellowships to CIs Steffens, SA Haslam, C Haslam) and Branscombe (through Canadian Institute for Advanced Research funding to CIs C Haslam, SA Haslam) ensure that we will be meeting across sites throughout the project.

The research addresses the National strategic research priority of living in a changing environment. Retirement trends are changing and optimizing adjustment is a priority that we can achieve through greater attention to social group factors that are not currently part of the retirement equation. In targeting this issue, this proposal speaks directly to enhancing the sustainability and well-being of the growing population of older retirees. Moreover, the project will be of theoretical, practical and economic benefit — in showing how post-retirement well-being and productivity can be enhanced through improved understanding of, and engagement with, the social factors that influence successful retirement.