Expatriation and Retirement

This is a Guest Blog entry.
Author: Yvonne Quahe, Reimagine Life. 
Yvonne is a HR consultant and coach who helps individuals, couples and organizations with globally mobile populations to increase their engagement with life, manage their careers and attract and retain talent.

An old couple relaxing on the beach
flickr/Hector Alejandro

Has it ever occurred to you that retirement is as inevitable as death and taxes? We are all shuffling towards that end. Much research has been done on the various other aspects of mobility and the effects of expatriation, but very little on the relationship between expatriation and retirement. But for many expatriates, deciding where to retire is one of the greatest challenges, especially if they are in a bicultural marriage. Since this issue will impact us sooner or later, my colleague and I conducted some research to gain a better understanding of how couples, who have spent the majority of their adult lives living and working in countries other than their passport countries, decide where to retire. We want the results to help expatriates prepare for retirement.

A previous blog discussed SCARF and global mobility. Here are some insights the SCARF model offers into expatriation and retirement:

  • Healthcare is the most important factor in the decision-making process, even more so than proximity to adult children. This possibly demonstrates our need for a sense of certainty (C).
  • Proximity to aging parents and extended family ranked second. This correlates strongly with relatedness (R), which is our need for belonging, whether to a family, group or community. Expatriates feel that this is the greatest toll of mobility. Often, our children are scattered all over the world because of their global childhoods. Our friends who are mobile like us are spread all over the globe. And often, even home does not feel like home anymore.
  • It was surprising that although most expatriates in our sample speak at least two languages, they were not prepared to retire to a country where they did not speak the language and had no interest in learning a new language. This speaks to our need for autonomy (A) and certainty (C) i.e. I need to be able to navigate my environment.
  • Climate also figured quite strongly as a factor in decision making.

General retirement research shows that 1/3 of retirees (Braithwaite et al., 1986) have problems adjusting to retirement, regardless of gender. Factors that contribute to poor adjustment include poor health and inadequate income, negativism in pre-retirement life, inability to accept change and reluctance to retire.

Adjustment to retirement is severely challenged if one is “forced” to retire. Often, in this fast-changing world, careers can end on a most unpredictable timetable. Suddenly, because of changes in the business landscape, we are offered a lateral move, asked to take an early package or relocate to a challenging location. Here, our sense of fairness is severely threatened especially if one has worked for the company for many years.

SCARF demonstrates that the brain craves certainty, and retirement is a phase of life where many certainties such as a regular income, a social network of colleagues, and recognition for expertise will change or even disappear. To many, retirement reeks of uncertainty, so much so that we often we put off making plans and are often caught by surprise.

What will help? Neuroscience shows us that we do our best thinking when our brains are in a ‘toward state’. In SCARF terms, it means people don’t feel threatened; they are in a psychologically safe space to do their best thinking. Labelling our emotions is a common exercise that can calm our limbic system so that we can bring our best thinking to this complicated, emotion churning dilemma.

Retirement planning takes time and energy, so we need to begin well in advance of the expected date to consider what we may like to do in the next chapter of our lives. This does not mean just sound financial planning. The psychological tasks of adjustment in retirement are much neglected and seldom discussed. Being flexible, open to change and, above all, having the capacity to accept limitations contribute towards being fulfilled in your retirement. In myriad ways, expatriation has prepared you for this. Think about how you and your family have had to learn to navigate a new physical, cultural and social environment every time you moved countries.

What hinders us from a satisfying retirement? Having sufficient income to live in retirement is important. However, what is more important and, more often than not, neglected is the loss of the work-life structure, as well as social networks, recognition, and status that are a result of work. Imagine if you have spent at least the last 30 years of your life in full time employment. On a very simple level, at least 10-12 hours of the day have been taken up with work (including commuting time) if not more.  Most of your social contact is at work, the recognition and self-identity is tied up with work. Then you retire… If you have had no interests beyond work, the chasm of time that retirement affords will eventually pose a challenge.

The SCARF model can provide us with a framework for planning our retirement.

  • Status – What would give me status once the work-life structure is diminished?
  • Certainty – Do I have sufficient funds to live the retirement I want? Do I have a plan for retirement so that I will not be caught by surprise?
  • Autonomy – Where will I live? When will I choose to retire?
  • Relatedness – Who is my community? Where can I become part of a community?
  • Fairness – Did I choose to retire or was I forced out? Can I ask my company to accommodate my request for more flexibility or reduced work schedule if I do not want to totally retire from my current position?


Quahe, Y., & Mathieu, C. (2012). Expatriation and Retirement, Survey for presentation at Families in Global Transition Conference. Sample size: 89/150 out of internationally mobile professionals working at international financial institutions.

Braithwaite, V.A., Gibson, D.M., & Bosly-Craft, R. (1986). An exploratory study of poor adjustment styles amongst retirees. Social Science and Medicine, 23, 493-499.

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