Understanding the communicative processes of baby boomer women adjusting to retirement: Connecting micro and macro discourses

Patricia E Gettings, Purdue University


Baby Boomers are changing the face of retirement in the United States. For example, retirement traditionally refers to the time when an individual who has worked full-time for the majority of her life chooses to entirely and permanently exit the workforce, but now includes a range of formations (e.g., bridge employment). Baby Boomer women are most affected by this “new” retirement because they have worked a broader range of jobs for longer periods of time than ever before. Transitioning to retirement implicates processes of adjusting beyond just a change in one’s employment status as retirees potentially confront instrumental (e.g., where to live), relational (e.g., changes in routine with spouse/partner) and identity (e.g., aging) shifts. This study pairs organizational discourse perspectives and the normative theory of social support to analyze micro and macro discourses about how Baby Boomer women experience the transition to retirement. Regarding micro-discourses, retirees often experience retirement as part of a couple since most have a self-defined partner. Hence, retirement involves communicative processes of adjusting as partners (re)negotiate roles and behaviors that have existed for many years. Regarding macro-discourses, the unprecedented nature of today’s retirement likely encourages women and their partners to look to and be influenced by media representations of retirement and respond to these representations in a range of ways. The multilevel nature of this project necessitated two types of data. Semi-structured interviews with women who retired in the past three years and their partners represented micro level discourses (N = 35; 19 females, 16 males), whereas media texts from sources like AARP The Magazine reflected macro level Discourses (N = 100). Analysis techniques included grounded theory methods, thematic analysis, dyadic qualitative data analysis methods, as well as innovative approaches for linking multiple levels of data. Findings from interviews resulted in a framework which reveals that retirement becomes “meaning-ful” for women when situated between their pre-retirement lives and the uncertainty that surrounds the future. Seven aspects become salient during the transition to retirement including (a) finances, (b) how to spend time, (c) where to live, (d) changes in friendship relationships, (e) valuing relationships with family members, (f) loss of professional identity, and (g) age/aging. Each of these areas implicates instrumental, relational, and identity meanings. Analysis of interviews with men does not fit the framework developed from women’s interviews, suggesting the gendered nature of retirement. Discourses associated with the transition to retirement in media texts included: (a) the “new” retirement, (b) finances in retirement, (c) you need to stay physically, mentally, and socially active in retirement, (d) retirees relocate and you probably should, too, and (e) aging in America. Tensions emerged between Discourses. In addition, most media texts did not articulate ways that forms of difference (e.g., gender) influence retirement. In terms of exploring the transition to retirement as individual and/or dyadic, Discourses tended to emphasize individual aspects while participants themselves framed it as both individual and dyadic. Indeed, variation in how couples treated relevant issues resulted in four couple types (individual decision/individual transition, dyadic decision/individual transition, individual decision/dyadic transition, dyadic decision/dyadic transition). Moreover, four dilemmas emerged that reflect participants’ attempts to pursue conflicting goals via interaction with their spouses: (a) I love you but I don’t want to spend (all) my time with you, (b) Retirement is enjoyable for everyone but you aren’t enjoying it, (c) (Good) parents to X in retirement but you’re doing Y, and (d) Retirement means freedom from work but you’re still “working.” Couples reported several strategies employed to manage dilemmas. Finally, analysis identified a range of connections between levels of D/discourse such as “The lucky ones: Baby Boomers with enough money to retire,” which suggests alignment between D/discourses that financial preparation for retirement is an individual responsibility. These connections tap into broader dialectics (e.g., certainty v. uncertainty). Theoretical, methodological, and practical implications of these findings are discussed and future research directions are noted.




Wilson, Purdue University.

Subject Area

Gerontology|Womens studies|Communication

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