For our paper ‘Sense-making for Exploratory Qualitative Research’ for the 2018  AMSRS Conference, Suzanne and I interviewed some recent retirees about what it was like to retire. In these interviews, we tested out our new ideas about sense-making. 

What is sense-making?

This is sense-making: the insight that people wade into difficult or ambiguous situations and then take some form of action to make the situation they find themselves in ‘make sense’. There is a powerful and instinctive drive to make this happen.

Situations not decisions

To take advantage of this insight, we need to refocus market and social research away from ‘decisions’ and towards the situations that people find themselves in. There is no point in asking about the ‘decisions’ people make because for much of the time in our daily lives there are no actual decisions, or if there are the decision follows the behaviour rather than precedes it. 

Retirement: responding to a situation 

It became clear that retiring is a very good example of this. The retirees we spoke to had retired because they fell ill or had become a carer for others, or in some cases because of a change in their workplace such as a new boss or a restructure made their work lives stressful. They did not decide to retire as such; retirement came to them.  

Wading in to retirement

These retirees waded in to retirement, and kept on wading. They worked it out as they went along. The usual decision-making model is that the decision to retire assumes that the person thought about retiring, then retired and that was the end of the retirement story. Nothing could be further from the truth  – as retirees, retirement was not something they had ‘done’,  it was something they were ‘doing’. They were still working out ‘how to retire’ up to two years later. Actions preceded thoughts. 

'Because I didn’t plan it, my mind wasn’t there yet.'  

Making personal sense not just financial sense

Retirement needs to make personal sense not just financial sense. It needs to fit ‘who I am’. These retirees actively worked at creating an identity as a retired person. They told us that it’s not about how much money you have but whether you like yourself in your new role as a retiree. 

'Perception is everything in retirement. You are what you think you are!'  

Role identity conflicts

Many of our panel of retirees felt a sense of role conflict. For example, one person wanted to build and rebuild social networks but was unable to do that because she had to be her husband’s carer. Someone else had children still at home – and the children regarded this once professional career woman as a useful drudge! 

Rituals to help create identity

Any life-stage change is easier if the culture includes the right kind of ritual, or rite of passage. For retirees, the ‘trip away’ is just such a ritual: 

'Everyone takes a trip to collect themselves. To break the cycle.'


Our research also  revealed some other important rituals. including grooming rituals.


Our key findings have clear implications for:

  • how retirees spend their money
  • how they will likely plan aged care and
  • for organisations hoping to use retirees as volunteers.
  • how to engage pre-retirees meaningfully

To find out more:



Photo by Thomas Hafeneth on Unsplash

Tags: Qualitative Research , sense-making, Ageing, Retirement decisions