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Cornell researchers find recipe for happy retired husbands: He works and the wife stays at home

BOSTON, MA. -- Retired men who return to work report the highest morale and lowest levels of depression -- especially if their wives remain at home -- compared with other couples, both working and retired, according to a new Cornell University study.

Recently retired stay-at-home wives, though, seem to have difficulty adjusting to retirement if their husbands aren't also at home; these women experience jumps in depressive symptoms compared with recently retired women whose husbands have also retired and haven't gone back to work.

But the lowest morale and highest rates of depression are experienced by men who decide to make retirement permanent. All these links to morale and depression are regardless of age, income and health.

"These findings suggest that late-midlife men appear to be more satisfied with their lives when they are retired and re-employed, especially when their spouses follow traditional gender role patterns," say Cornell psychologists/sociologists Jungmeen E. Kim and Phyllis Moen. "Men who are free from the demands of their career jobs but are re-employed are happiest, probably because they are working by choice and part time," they say.

Kim and Moen presented their research on Monday (Aug. 23) at the American Psychological Association's 107th Annual Convention in Boston, which runs from Aug. 20 through Aug. 24.

The two researchers studied 534 married men and women between the ages of 50 and 74 in upstate New York who were either retired for a long time, newly retired or soon-to-be retired. Their study is unique in that it looks not only at the retirement transition period but also at how working after retirement contributes to life quality. Retirement was defined as being eligible for or receiving a pension from one's career employer and/or receiving social security.

"We do not see retirement as a one-way, one-time, irreversible exit from paid work," says Moen, the Ferris Family Professor of Life Course Studies at Cornell, the director of the Cornell Retirement and Well-being Study and co-director of the Cornell Gerontology Research Institute. "Paid work following retirement -- usually part time and by choice -- is an increasingly common phenomenon. Many retirees go on to new careers or are rehired as consultants by their old employers."

With early retirement becoming more frequent and more working women retiring than ever before, couples are facing two retirements with more time for each other. Previous research has focused on the psychological well-being of individuals, especially men, during and immediately after the retirement transition. In this study, the researchers investigated the relationship between retirement and the subsequent psychological well-being for couples.

By contrast, the researchers found that women's well-being and morale are not strongly linked to work or retirement status but to the quality of their marriages. Whether retired or not, women's well-being is not necessarily affected if they experience a lot of marital conflict, the researchers found, but tends to be higher when marriage is harmonious.

For men, the opposite is true: If a marriage is full of conflict, men tend to report lower psychological well-being, but if marital satisfaction is high, their well-being is not necessarily affected. This, the researchers say, is because a man's employment status is more predictive of his well-being.

Both men and women experience more marital conflict during the retirement transition period, the study found, but they respond differently. Newly retired men tend to report higher morale and better well-being than before retirement, whereas newly retired women tend to report more symptoms of depression, especially if their husbands remain employed.

"Men seem to enjoy the freedom from work pressure when they retire from career jobs, suggesting that retirement need not lead to psychological distress for them," says Kim, a post-doctoral research fellow at Cornell. "Women, on the other hand, seem to experience the retirement transition as a loss of roles and thereby, experience more depressive symptoms.

"In other words, how the marriage is going tends not to play a significant role in men's well-being during the retirement transition, whereas it plays a very significant role for women during this time," Kim says.

"It is crucial to consider the work/retirement status of both partners because each spouse's retirement transition represents an important life event for the couple, requiring adjustment on the part of both spouses," adds Moen.

The study was supported by the National Institute on Aging and the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation.

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