Career Adaptability in Retirees

Retirees returning to the workplace is not so unusual and there doing so is not always about meeting financial needs. Our research using in-depth interviews with 22 retirees of different working backgrounds, ranging from corporate professionals through to semi-skilled labourers, revealed consistent patterns and themes in the results. We found the qualities of “career adaptability” in these retirees who had returned to work. What is interesting about this finding is that career adaptability is not often thought of as a psychological strength within older folk; more often, it is associated with younger people entering into the world of work and adults surviving or, hopefully, thriving in their daily grind.

Dimensions of Career Adaptability

Measures of career adaptability tap four psychological dimensions: a future orientation to working (concern), a sense of feeling autonomy over work tasks (control), interest in learning and developing new skills and knowledge (curiosity), and feeling positive about one’s ability to contribute to a workplace (confidence).

The figure below depicts the links among the themes revealed in the interviews and it shows that career adaptability is connected up to all major themes.

Consider the example of two retired sheep shearers who returned to work as roustabouts in shearing sheds. Fit as fiddles, these two decided to job-share, splitting the tasks of this demanding labouring job between themselves, depending on their physical capacities (e.g., one’s arthritic knee and the other’s arthritic back). Why? Because working hard gives them a sense of satisfaction and meaning more than any other activity.

Implications for Workplaces and Policy

Policy makers and employers should note that older workers’ interests, needs, and reasons for working may be very different to those of younger workers. Indeed, a proven approach to attracting and retaining younger employees may not be as effective for older workers. Instead, harnessing older workers’ career adaptability and how they wish to express it may be just the thing to refresh motivation and restore dignity in the workplace.


This blog article is an extract from:

Luke, J., McIlveen, P., & Perera, H. N. (2016). A thematic analysis of career adaptability in retirees who return to work. Frontiers in Psychology. doi: http://dx.doi.org/10.3389/fpsyg.2016.00193

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