By Kristen Gerencher Last Updated: 5/14/2006 3:09:00 PM
SAN FRANCISCO (MarketWatch) -- Retirement parties have their work cut out for them. Whether it's a casual gathering, formal dinner or even a roast that pokes fun at the dearly departing's quirks, the ritual send-off is undergoing a transformation as workplace demographics change.
Gone are the days when companies relied on the traditional gold watch to recognize long-serving employees during a predictable annual group departure. Instead, celebrations have become impromptu, often arranged by peers and, in many cases, stoked with mixed emotions.
Rocki-Lee DeWitt, dean of the University of Vermont School of Business in Burlington, said she believes in celebrating co-workers' important career transitions. But how to pull that off these days isn't always clear.
"As the nature of the psychological contract between organizations and employees has changed..., you really don't have an easy time figuring out what does it mean to do a retirement party," she said.
For one thing, employees with long-standing ties to an organization are rare. Workers stay on a job a median of four years, though the median tenure for workers 55 to 64 is more than twice that at 9.6 years, according to 2004 data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
What's more, some older workers choose to reduce their hours and enter an extended period of semi-retirement that obscures their transition. Others may end up coming back full time at a later date.
Some firms offer early retirement buy-out packages to select older employees, potentially creating conflict between those who get lucrative incentives to leave and those who have to work longer.
"Do you do a retirement party for people who take early retirement buy-outs?" DeWitt said. "Usually it's not a celebratory context because the performance of the firm is challenged. It's almost like a slap in the face for people who weren't eligible for early retirement to recognize the people getting to leave the place before it tanks."
Corporate retirement-party practices in general are hard to track. In larger companies, recognition often is handled at the individual department level, with human-resources staff uninvolved in party planning and execution.
AARP, the largest U.S. advocacy group for older people, hasn't even done research on retirement observances, spokeswoman Nancy Thompson said.
Emily Kimball held her job as outdoor recreation manager for the Chesterfield County Parks and Recreation Department in Virginia for 12 years before retiring at age 60 in 1992.
In addition to a smaller office party, her colleagues gave her a roast that included her personal friends and family. She said she remembers the humorous send-off fondly.
Her co-workers capitalized on her penchant for telling stories and showing slides of her exotic biking trips, one of which included her fascination with Ireland's stone walls.
"I had apparently interspersed within in it lots of pictures of walls so they parodied that by showing a slide show of walls around the county," she said. "That was a good way to make fun of me."
Had she disliked her job, a grand goodbye might not have been so appealing, said Kimball, now a speaker on creative aging. But she said her tenure represented a "successful career transition in my middle years."
"I was leaving a very important part of my life, and it meant a lot to be appreciated for what I'd done and accomplished in those years."
Still, Kimball acknowledged that others may not feel so warmly about the terms of their employment. "Some people are happy to crawl away. They don't want anything."
It's typical for a retiring person to have mixed feelings about being the subject of a celebration, particularly if she felt underappreciated or misused in her position, said Robert Weiss, senior fellow at the University of Massachusetts-Boston's Gerontology Institute.
But most of the disgruntlement fades if co-workers organize a party, he said.
"Sometimes people will leave because of the conflict, and that remains with them," Weiss said. "But mostly, more troubling experiences soften and people want to leave feeling that it had mattered what they gave their lives to and that people valued them. A party does that, and dinners can do that and people dropping in can do that."
What both employer and new retiree want out of a celebration is "that kind of reassurance going each way that it was a good relationship," he said.
Women stick around longer
Now that women make up nearly half the work force, they're just as likely to receive a send-off as men. But research suggests the sexes differ in how they anticipate celebrations marking the end of their careers.
"If a firm has a policy of sponsoring retirement parties, and firms often do, especially mid-sized firms, it will be invoked for men and women equally," Weiss said.
"Colleagues will have retirement parties for women as quickly as for men," he said. "It's a way of saying 'We're sorry to see you go."
There was one difference that Weiss, who interviewed 89 people for his book "The Experience of Retirement," found striking: Women are more likely to return unpaid to the office on weekends before their formal retirement to finish projects, tidy up their desks for the next occupant or help an overloaded company.
"That sense of still being a part of things, that continued linkage, was more common for women," he said.
Despite a mutual wish to stay in touch, few departing retirees -- men or women -- are able to maintain currency with former co-workers who are still on the job, Weiss said.
"The retirement party isn't a transformation of relationships," he said. "It's much more an ending of relationships."
Separate from the retirement ceremony the broader university holds, DeWitt said she's planning a party at an on-campus museum for a long-serving man on the faculty, an event likely to draw 65 people. The university instead of the business school will pick up the tab in this case since the party won't include spouses, she said.
"We go to great lengths to make sure there's a match between what we do as a celebration and who the person is," she said. "We even go down to the level of what kind of food would this person prefer versus not prefer?"
Still, the ability to please new retirees with such details depends on having a small number of older workers who depart infrequently, DeWitt said. "If we had to do this every year, that might be a different thing."http://www.investors.com/breakingnews.asp?journalid=37745035&brk=1