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Retired, but still a physicist

Caroline Lodge and Eileen Carnell describe how good practice in the retirement process can benefit both retiring physicists and their employers

Courtesy: Photolibrary

When Raymond Carter wanted to take early retirement from a position at a university in the north of England, he arranged to see his line manager to discuss his request. What happened next was, in his view, both shocking and disappointing. "The meeting lasted two minutes," he recalled in a letter sent to us after we published an article on retirement in the university lecturers' union magazine. "I was told to ensure that my office was completely cleared in a month. What happened next was, in his view, both shocking and disappointing. "The meeting lasted two minutes," he recalled in a letter sent to us after we published an article on retirement in the university lecturers' union magazine. "I was told to ensure that my office was completely cleared in a month. There were no expressions of sorrow or gratitude or even curiosity about my future plans, and no acknowledgment of what I had accomplished for the institution." As a result, he added, "I now have mixed feelings about my impending retirement. I am bitter about the lack of acknowledgment of what I have achieved for the university."

Ashley Kent's experience was much happier, largely because of steps taken both by him and his employer, the University of London's Institute of Education. He prepared by seeking financial information and advice, attended a retirement course provided by the university and negotiated his retirement date in advance. Because the university chose to involve him in succession planning, Kent was able to hand over responsibilities to younger members of staff whose talent he had nurtured. He was also able to cherry-pick the work-related activities he wanted to continue. His leaving party was planned around his wishes. He felt appreciated, and that his departure was timely and well managed.

The key factor that made the difference between Carter's experience and that of Kent was the behaviour of their respective employers. The interaction of employers' policies with personal choices has an impact on the success of an individual's retirement. This was the conclusion of a 2004 report by University of Kent researchers, "Happy Retirement?", and it is also borne out by research we conducted for our book Retiring Lives, which focused specifically on educationalists.

Released into the wild
In the next few years, the challenges that the retirement process poses for both physicists and their employers are likely to intensify. Already, governments have begun promoting later retirement, for example by progressively raising the state pension age and abolishing the default retirement age in the UK. The latter change means that workers – not employers – will decide their retirement date. Consequently, we argue that employers have an increased responsibility to support older members of the workforce in their decisions. A further complication is that more people will need this support: the number of people reaching retirement age is due to peak next year, as baby boomers reach their mid-60s.

Some employers will want to use this peak in retirements as a short-term solution to financial problems. However, there are a number of reasons why a good employer should be as careful about investing in the wellbeing of employees approaching the end of their careers as they are in the induction of new staff. The employer benefits from a happier workforce generally, and from employees' willingness to make a contribution after their retirement.

Leaving work can be "a tad scary", as one professor admitted in our book. In his words, academic retirees are entering "a world without structure, security and predictability, like a rescued animal being released into the wild". According to a survey carried out by MORI in 2008, retirees fear missing their work friends, the challenge of the work they do and a reason to get out of the house, as well as having financial anxieties.

There are a variety of things that employees can do to smooth this transition. One is to reduce their working hours before they retire, to make the changes less sudden. Another is to pursue other types of paid work after retiring. Alternatively, some physicists may want to continue working into their 70s or 80s, while others may never want to give physics up at all (see "The retirement problem" Physics World July 2006 p14).

Employers need to consider how to ac_commodate this range of possibilities, and how to help their employees make decisions that suit their needs as individuals. Having a well-publicized retirement policy is a good start, as it requires all staff members to adopt good practice and a positive approach to retirement. But there are also more direct ways for human-resources departments to support retiring employees. For example, few employees have a good understanding of pensions, so employer-run briefing sessions on pensions and pension choices can help people to plan their retirement more efficiently.

Other aspects of this major transition can be supported through seminars, workshops or information sessions that explore the challenges and possibilities of approaching retirement. Typically, such activities encourage participants to think about how they will occupy their time, what aspects of their current life (including relationships with friends and families) are likely to change, and to explore their fears and hopes. Individual coaching for employees approaching retirement, as well as mentoring by a retiree from the same organization, can also help with decisions about when and how to leave. If employees want additional help, support groups offer private and confidential places for participants to share and develop their thinking. Even if they are not directly involved in such groups, employers may be able to provide a facilitator, accommodation for meetings, refreshments and so on.

Above all, succession-planning processes need to be clear and include time for a handover. People have reported to us how difficult it is to be treated as though they have already left. Inviting retirees to contribute to plans for the future of their work indicates more appreciation for their contribution and career than all the praise and celebration of their achievements in a farewell speech.

Ongoing contributions
The pay-off for organizations that plan retirement and successions well is that they stand to gain from the wisdom, knowledge and experience of their older workers. Retirees may accrue up to 40 years' valuable working experience and it seems perverse to lose it – especially since many such workers still want to make a contribution. Physicist Richard Harris agrees. At 68, he returned to work as a consultant for a defence company's Trusted Experts scheme. "I want to work and my employers want me to work," he told Saga magazine in May 2010.

Jacqui MacDonald, head of staff development for the Institute of Education, is also an advocate of retirees staying involved. In 2005 her department launched an initiative to get retirees to share their knowledge and expertise to support the professional development of other staff. "These retirees contribute to retiring workshops, writing support, coaching and mentoring, assisting with drafting research proposals, work shadowing (especially on international travel), facilitating lunchtime or end-of-day workshops and supporting staff with promotion applications," she told us during our research, adding that she also sees the initiative as a way of stamping out ageism in the workplace.

Staff members who continue to work for an organization after retirement may also serve in other capacities, including providing direct service, administrative support, leadership or expertise in specialized areas. Retirees can also contribute to an organization through part-time paid work or voluntary activities, bringing their particular qualities to such diverse roles as fundraising and serving as trustees or members of advisory or ethics boards.

It is important to note, however, that retirees who participate in this way need to be afforded the same respect as other workers. No matter how short a time they spend working in an organization, they must have access to a space to work, a computer, e-mail and administrative support. It is crucial for organizations to negotiate roles and even construct job descriptions to clarify what retired people are contributing, and this information needs to be available to all staff. Retirees in the organization also need supervision, especially if they are involved in mentoring or coaching, or are working with young people.

The bottom line, though, is that many phy_sicists continue to feel passionate about physics after their retirement. They often have the time, opportunity and determin_ation to put their talents, beliefs and values into improving the working lives of physicists or promoting the understanding of physics. The retired astronomers Stephen and Irene Little, who run a local citizens' observatory in Colorado, are excellent examples (see "Astronomy for all" Physics World January 2010 p42).

Another way that retired physicists can contribute to the education of young people is by visiting schools and universities to share their interests and enthusiasm for their subject. While there, they may participate in activities such as setting up science projects and specialized courses in a particular field. Other vital roles include giving careers talks and advice in schools and colleges, or acting as a school governor, as well as working with community groups.

Retirees who contribute to a worthwhile endeavour after retirement gain satisfaction and an opportunity to use and develop their skills. They also become part of a social community, helping to overcome the isolation that some retirees experience after leaving work. A continued involvement in physics after retirement can bring respect, prestige and recognition, and give purpose to people's lives; Harris concluded that his contribution to the Trusted Experts scheme "puts me back in control of my retirement". There is, of course, no age limit to these activities and they help retirees stay active and healthy. Everybody benefits.

About the author
Caroline Lodge and Eileen Carnell have both retired from the Institute of Education, University of London, UK, where they now run workshops for retiring staff. Both currently work as freelance writers, and Lodge runs a consultancy called Inspiring Retiring, e-mail

This article appears in the February 2011 issue of Physics World.

last edited: September 11, 2018

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