According to the US psychologist David Hershenson, people who retire can experience up to six separate statuses. Retrenchment comes when they cut back on work and principal employment, and Exploration sees them think about what activities to do next instead. In their Try-out status, retirees see how well suited they are to new activities (including inactivity), and Involvement marks their long-term participation in pursuits they enjoy and can stick with. When new options present themselves, retirees are faced with Reconsideration. And should they move on from an activity, or indeed return to work, then they Exit. Not coincidentally, the six statuses together form the acronym RETIRE (D. B. Hershenson J. Aging Studies 38, 1–5; 2016).

It may seem contrived, but the study of retirement — and finding ways to investigate it — is an important business as the population ages. Not least is the question of who should be paid to retire, by whom and when. As funds dwindle, retirement ages are creeping up. But do some workers deserve an earlier break from the daily grind than others? The government of the Netherlands has put some serious thought into whether people in some professions — particularly occupations involving heavy manual labour, such as construction — should have their retirement age fixed or reduced, even while people in less-demanding jobs see their retirement ages rise (N. Vermeer et al. Labour Econ. 43, 159–170; 2016). In the United Kingdom, the opposition Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn has suggested something similar. As Jane Austen wrote in Sense and Sensibility: “It isn’t what we say or think that defines us, but what we do.”

Policies on retirement, then, and the studies that inform them, need to broaden their assessment to include an earlier status: work. If retirement is a well-earned break after a long and productive career, how can researchers distinguish those employees who should enter it before some and after others?

At Nature we have our own internal scoring system, with its own (slightly) contrived acronym. We look for people who perform Work that is consistently Excellent and Notable, and that has helped to define the cultural and scientific Zeitgeist for a significant time — usually measured at about 40 years. We call it the WENZ measure. Every organization should have a WENZ. And when people with the WENZ factor retire, they should do so in the full and certain knowledge that their contribution has been valued by colleagues. More than that, they should know they will be missed.