Don’t write off seniors: Retirees are pursuing their life dreams

Contrary to the stereotype of grandparents sitting on the porch in rocking chairs, retirement can be a time of personal growth and activity, according to new research in the Journal of Consumer Research.

“Our research investigates retirement as a life stage focused on consumption where outdated cultural scripts for retirement are challenged,” write authors Hope Jensen Schau (University of Arizona), Mary C. Gilly (University of California, Irvine), and Mary Wolfinbarger (California State University, Long Beach).

The researchers embarked on a research project to explore the phenomena called “identity renaissance.” They found that in contrast to images of seniors in decline, many retirees are using their time and money to pursue lifelong interests they had put aside in favor of more immediate obligations prior to retirement.

Using in-depth interviews with retirees, observation of senior centers and a rehabilitation center, and monitoring online forums, the researchers revealed a culture of seniors actively engaging in new projects and picking up old ones.

The study data reveals two categories of identity work among retirees: self-expression and affiliation. Self-expression tends to be more about enhancing or developing the self, and can involve “self-retrieval,” when people take up past life projects that were deferred or continue with life interests in the face of change such as illness or disability. Other self-expression projects involve the concept of “self-permanence,” or creating a lasting legacy; self-synchronization, which is an effort to align oneself with the current state of culture and society, such as buying a computer and learning to use the internet; or self-discovery, which entails creating new projects, life goals, or memories.

Affiliation projects are more outward focused and can involve moving closer to friends and family; increasing a connection to a place, such as their homeland; or volunteering or working to improve the world situation.

“Our research on retirement as a life transition demonstrates that this later life stage need not focus on cognitive or corporeal decline, but rather celebrate the vibrant identity projects of retirees,” write the authors. “It is a time of significant renewal, when individuals have time to engage in identity work in a way not possible since their adolescence.”


Hope Jensen Schau, Mary C. Gilly, and Mary Wolfinbarger. “Consumer Identity Renaissance: The Resurgence of Identity Inspired Consumption in Retirement.” Journal of Consumer Research: August 2009.

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