The 5 Stages of Retirement

Find it difficult to envision how this next phase of life will play out? What exactly will you be doing with all that free time once you’ve stopped working? Is it really that time already to start thinking?

Just as all major life-changing events like marriage or having kids involve an ongoing process of emotional adjustment, retirement is no exception.

In 1975, Robert Atchley, a professor in gerontology, proposed that retirement adjustment progresses in these five stages. He acknowledged that while it might be difficult to fit a model for different retirement circumstances, such as involuntary or forced retirement, these stages are typically what most retirees would experience. They also follow a similar pattern to other major life events, such as the stages of a romantic relationship or marriage.

Understanding the different stages of retirement can help you to prepare for it better. Atchley's research also showed that proper planning and managing of expectations can help you to go through these stages faster, thus achieving a stable and satisfying retirement earlier than those who did not prepare.

Before we delve into the stages of retirement, it is important to first take a look at pre-retirement, which is where you would start planning for the big transition.

While you are still working, retirement can appear to be both an upcoming burden to bear, and also a distant paradise. Most people save as much as they can while they are working so that they can live comfortably and enjoy the fruits of their labour in their retirement. However, they often give little thought about what they will actually do and what to expect in this next phase of life. The demands of work may also leave them little time to really ponder this issue.

No matter how old you are or how far your retirement is, it is always good to start planning early. While the focus of retirement planning might be on saving up (and no doubt is it important), your financial plans and day-to-day retirement plan should go hand in hand. This is the retirement identity that you will have to build for yourself.

Once you stop working, you lose your identity as a working individual. This can be difficult to deal with (and is not just a problem that workaholics face!) Society functions in a way such that the role of being a worker is emphasised as what shapes your identity. Thus, when you lose this role and become a retiree, you must be prepared to actively build a new identity for yourself in your later years.

The shortest part of this retirement process would be when you actually leave your place of work. This fateful day will look different for everybody; for some, it will be marked with some form of celebration, such as a farewell dinner or party, especially for those with more distinguished job positions. Unfortunately, it might not all be that celebratory for some. The reality of retirement hits harder when it comes unexpectedly, such as when a worker is dismissed from their company without proper notice or is forced into retirement due to reasons like illness, company policy or family situation.

Whatever that day will look like, it is only just the beginning of a whole new journey, which thus begins the five stages of retirement.

Once you are freshly retired, then commences the honeymoon phase where you are free to explore and do all the things you’ve been eagerly planning for, such as travelling, taking up new hobbies or spending more time with family and loved ones.

However, not everyone will go through the (presumably positive) honeymoon phase. The immediate period right after retirement can be especially difficult for those who retired involuntarily, were not fully prepared, or had mismatched expectations. Whatever it is, this is the time for you to figure out your own footing and direction during this retirement journey. This phase has no set time frame and will vary between individuals.

So this is it?

After the highs, will inevitably come the lows. This is the period where you would start to feel the emotional letdown of the reality of retirement. Your plans may not be as satisfying as you anticipated, you may start to feel the strain of your depleting savings, and issues with your health may start appearing. In this time, you may start to feel loneliness, boredom, disillusionment, or disappointment. If you have kids, you may also experience empty nest syndrome once they get married and move out.

Fortunately, the letdown stage doesn’t last forever. Just as married couples eventually learn how to live together, you will begin to familiarise yourself with your circumstances and learn how to navigate them accordingly. This is the time where you re-evaluate your goals and reflect on your purpose and identity in life as a retiree. It is easily the most difficult stage in the emotional retirement process and takes lots of effort and soul-searching to accomplish.

This is when you've finally achieved stability and have created a new retirement identity for yourself that you are comfortable with. Eventually, you start to determine and work on your long-term choices or goals and can enjoy your retirement with a new sense of purpose. This stage may occur after the honeymoon; some people do not experience disenchantment and reorientation. Ultimately, the goal should be to reach this stage as soon as you can.

And finally comes the time when the inevitable arrives - illness, disability, or nearing death. As Atchley described it, this transfers retirees from the retirement role to a “sick and disabled role”, where they grow increasingly dependent on others for survival. (PS. we wrote an article about planning for end-of-life matters which can be found here).

At the end of the day, your retirement is what you make of it. We highly encourage you to take the time today, no matter which life season you are in right now, to examine and reflect your life goals and values, so as to start working towards forming a holistic retirement plan that accounts for both your finances and well-being.

(Source: Investopedia, Pearson Education, NAP411)

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