Retirement Careers for Women

"Retirement as a self-managed career offers professional women freedom to decide what to do and how to do it, which paid working did not allow due to restructuring, increasing demands, added evening and weekend work, or less predictability."


Catherine Earl
Research Fellow, Federation University, Australia

A current policy objective across aging nations is the promotion of “active aging.” This recognizes valuable later-life contributions made by older persons. However, as noted by Alan Walker, it involves participation and well-being across the life course but is primarily focused on employment.1 This narrowness potentially clouds how educated professional women who are over age 50 experience leisure in post-work life.

Certainly, retired school teachers and university lecturers express a work-oriented identity, labeling themselves as “career women” and describing their careers as continuous like a man’s, even when they took breaks for childbirth, caring, or sabbatical.

Interviews with these professional women reveal that they do not suffer in making retirement transitions; rather, they flourish. They do so by applying a self-managing career development approach to post-work activities, such as volunteering, unpaid caring, and household labor, and sometimes paid work.

Their activities offer personal fulfilment and a way to maintain skills and competencies. These reflect systematic and purposeful pursuits of a “serious leisure” career, as outlined by Robert Stebbins, that derive feelings of dignity and self-worth; personal, intrinsic, and physical rewards; specific knowledge and skills development; and comradeship, sociability, and friendship.2

Retirement as a self-managed career offers professional women freedom to decide what to do and how to do it, which paid working did not allow due to restructuring, increasing demands, added evening and weekend work, or less predictability. For these women, retirement is “a relief” and “a new life.”

Anabel’s story draws attention to the abruptness of retirement transitions for professional women. Although she expected to “ease” herself into retirement, she did not: Anabel stopped work completely. Initially, she had searched for paid work, but, despite being a skilled professional with recent workforce experience, she found no suitable employment. She says, “I thought that my skills and my experience would, you know, not be in demand, but would be valuable, would be valued by others, but I don’t think that they are.”

The deficit of quality part-time jobs for skilled older workers is a significant deterrent for extending working lives in line with current public policy.

Other significant deterrents center on health management and caring responsibilities. Rowena’s story highlights that health prevention, health management, and caring for family are among the most important issues affecting how retired professional women use time.

After choosing to “consciously withdraw” from employment, Rowena faced putting things for herself “on hold” to care for her acutely ill partner. She substituted caring for him and her own chronic health condition for “the buzz” of working. Coping with health is part of the suite of purposeful activities in a retirement career. She says, “It didn’t stop me…I have to take those impediments in my stride.”

Jane’s story reminds us that retirement is a dynamic process and that interests evolve. Jane experienced an abrupt and unexpectedly premature exit from the full-time position where she had worked continuously for 34 years, to care full time for her mother who suffered from Alzheimer’s. After 3 years, Jane’s mother become violent and went into professional care. Jane faced the challenge of a late-career job search, then a transition from that encore career into volunteering. She recently decided to quit unpaid working. She says, “I’ve become sort of just happy being at home and, you know, having coffee and lunch and things like that. I don’t feel the need to—what’s the word?—sort of validate my existence by doing all this community work.”

Unlike other professional women who experienced an abrupt work-to-retirement transition, Jane’s late-career changes were more blurred, involving transitions from one purposeful pursuit to another.

Current interpretations of active aging focused on paid work are too narrow and should be broadened beyond extended labor force participation to recognize various productive activities, including unpaid care, volunteering, and personal health prevention strategies.

As things stand, paid work is not an attractive option for retired professional women. Many do not expect to work; if they are relatively financially secure, they do not need to continue working. Yet their ongoing engagement and participation confirms that if they wished to work, they would be able to do so.

It is noteworthy that these highly educated and skillful professionals do not actively continue in paid employment, leaving a potential pool of labor that is not being accessed by employers.

Although it is assumed that older workers desire flexibility in reduced or nonstandard working hours, professional women indicate a preference for autonomy and greater control over decision making. The availability of quality jobs for older workers may meet their needs.

Thus, policy makers must respond to challenges presented by the working-longer imperative in terms of specific groups of older workers’ expectations for post-work life. Measures may include promoting structured programs aimed to utilize retirees’ skills and funding coaches to support people managing retirement careers.

1. Alan Walker, “Commentary: The Emergence and Application of Active Aging in Europe,” Journal of Aging and Social Policy 21, no. 1 (2009): 85.
2. Robert Stebbins, “Serious Leisure and Well-Being,” in Work, Leisure and Well-Being, edited by J. T. Haworth (London: Routledge, 1997), 119.


This research is part of a large project, “Retiring Women: Understanding Older Female Work-Life Transitions,” funded by the Australian Research Council and three industry partners. The research team administered a large survey in 2013 and 2014 to older women (over age 50) in the public sector (n = 1189) and the university sector (n = 1287), and carried out follow-up semistructured telephone interviews in 2014 with 12 older women who identified in the survey as not being in paid employment and not looking for work—that is, they are fully retired. The survey was analyzed using SPSS and the interviews using Nvivo. An earlier version of the paper was presented at IAGG2015 Chiang Mai, Thailand, October 19, 2015.

About the author

Catherine Earl, PhD, is a social anthropologist who researches transformations of work and welfare, gender and social change, and the rise of Asian middle classes. She is a research fellow at Federation Business School, Federation University Australia. 


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