Skip to Content

How our perceptions and expectations of retirement and work are changing


How our perceptions and expectations of retirement and work are changing

Person Using Pottery Wheel

Societal perceptions of retirement

The idea that retirement is a ‘hard stop’, a point in time at which people stop working and never work again, is expected to dwindle over the next 10 – 25 years according to our new research, conducted by Message House.  

Looking back over the last 50 years, 40% of people perceive this hard stop to have been most people’s experience of retirement.  Men were much more likely to say this than women (46% vs 34%). 

Only 15% of people expect that a hard stop retirement will be most people’s experience of retirement in the next 10-25 years.  Interestingly people under 24 were significantly more likely than those over 25 to say they expect a hard stop will be most people’s experience of retirement in the future (24% vs 14%).

The biggest change between people’s perceptions of retirement in the past and in the future is a large, anticipated, increase in people ‘never really retiring because they need or want to keep working’. Whilst only 13% of people felt that this was most people’s experience of retirement in the past, 41% expect it to be the norm in the future.  45% of women say they expect this to be the norm, compared to 37% of men.

Retirement as a period of transition, where people reduce the amount of time they spend working and balance it with also doing other things is expected to continue to be the most common experience.  47% of people perceive this was how most people experienced retirement in the past and 44% expect this to be how most people experience retirement in the future.

People's expectations of retirement are changing. Looking at the last 50 years 40% of people expected a hard stop retirement while just 13% expected to keep working in some capacity. Looking at the next 10-25 years this trend reverses, with 41% expecting to continue working and just 15% expecting a hard stop.

Individual hopes vs expectations of retirement

44% of people who have yet to retire hope that their retirement will be a hard stop, when they stop working and never work again, but only 30% realistically expect that from their retirement. Only half (52%) who said that they hope for a hard stop retirement expect to achieve it. 

To stop work and never work again is significantly more attractive to people who left education after school (49%) compared to those who carried onto degree level (40%).

Only 9% of people hope that they will never really retire (because they will want or need to keep on working), yet 24% say this is realistically what they expect will happen to them.  People who left education after school and women (at 28% and 27% respectively) were most likely to say that realistically they expect they will never really retire.

Many people don't expect to achieve the retirement they hope for. 44% of people ideally hope for a hard stop retirement but just 30% think they will actually achieve it. Only 9% want to continue working in some capacity while 24% think that this is the realistic path for them

Imagining what our lives will look like in retirement

It is perhaps not surprising that most people find it difficult to imagine what their life will be like beyond State Pension Age, nor that they start to find it easier with age.  25% of total respondents said they find this easy, and there is a significant jump from 23% to 37% saying they find this easy, when comparing 45-54 yr olds to those aged 55+.  However it is notable that men and people in more professional roles are most likely to say they find it easy to imagine what their life will look like and what they will be doing (29% men compared to 22% of women and 30% ABC1 compared to 19% C2DE).  With the gender pension gap at 35% and rising levels of pre-pension poverty, this highlights the importance of supporting women and people on lower incomes to plan for later life.

With longer lives we increasingly expect there to be more variety in what people do and when they do it. It could quite dramatically change when and how often people spend periods of time in education, working or not working throughout their lives. One consequence is perhaps that this more flexible approach to a ‘multi-stage’ life may make it harder for people to imagine what their life will look like past State Pension Age. As a result, people will arguably need greater levels of support in the future to plan and make the most of these multi-stage lives, particularly those such as renters, and those living alone that the data indicates find it more difficult to imagine what lies ahead: (52% of renters say it’s difficult to imagine retirement vs. 37% of those who own their home and 50% of those living alone say it’s difficult vs. 40% of those who live with partner). 

Retirement & transitions in the context of longer lives

We also asked people to select the top phrases they would (like to) use to describe their lives across different ages. 

Enjoyment is associated with every age group, although we observed the well-documented u-shaped curve of happiness, with ‘enjoyment’ as a descriptor dipping to its lowest point for people in their 40s. Freedom is more associated with later decades than choice, opportunity, discovery or control. 

We found that younger people aged 18-29 expect their 30s to be a time of enjoyment and fulfilment, whereas those in their 30s describe it as a time of transition and taking control.  We also found that 18-49 year olds expect their 50s to be a time of relaxation enjoyment and fulfilment, but those in their 50s describe it as a time of transitions, balance and taking control.

The research highlights that people are much less likely to anticipate transitions than to recognise them in the moment or in hindsight. This is important to understand because longer and more varied, flexible lives, are likely to mean we all experience more life events and will need to navigate more transitions. This all paints a picture of people’s changing hopes and expectations for work and retirement.  It shows that many people struggle to visualise what their retirement will look like, and raises significant questions over what new, more or better help people need to manage their finances, health and careers over longer lives. 

Some of what’s needed are structural changes – from growing access to good quality flexible work for example, to increasing awareness and access to careers support and advice for working adults, and development of new and different forms of financial advice and guidance.  And much of what is needed is more cultural, changing our expectations of life’s milestones, of what people can or should do and when, including creating more and varied role models of the different shapes a modern and healthy retirement can take.