Married Couples Taking Detours on Road to Retirement

Full-time retirement at age 60 with a generous pension and company-sponsored health care may look more like a pipe dream than the American dream for many older workers today.

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The recent economic downturn, combined with long-brewing business changes, is keeping workers on the job longer and changing how dual-income married couples in particular make the leap from the daily grind to retirement, according to a recent study from Case Western Reserve University’s Mandel School of Applied Social Sciences.

"It’s no longer the reality that retirement is a straight path from working to retiring for many people," says Angela Curl, Ph.D., the study’s lead author and Case Western Reserve graduate.

Curl, now an assistant professor of social work at the University of Missouri, and Aloen Townsend, Ph.D., associate professor of social work at Case Western Reserve, examined data collected over eight years. They followed work-retirement transition patterns for couples in which one partner was between 51 and 61 years old and in which both partners were employed, either full or part time, and were not self-employed.

Researchers found that about 40 percent of partners follow the same path to retirement as their spouse.

"What became evident," Townsend says, "is that retirement is a couple-led event."

And even when spouses don’t follow the same path—men are more likely than women to move directly from work to retirement, for example—they are influenced by each other. Curl points out that women are more likely to stop working or change their work schedule to care for an ailing spouse or other family member, which may require a shift to part-time employment or even a period of unpaid family leave.

Such options may be better than traditional retirement for certain workers, especially those who may need to return to the workplace after the death of a spouse or for other financial reasons, Curl says.

"Couples may need help thinking through key questions," she says. "Strategies and planning for the future should take into consideration both spouses."