Retirement Stages

Toward the end of October, as Martin and I sat in the kitchen waiting for dinner to finish baking in the oven, we sipped a glass of wine and talked about our latest projects. Suddenly, I realized the day before was our one year retirement anniversary. A year!?! Gone already! And, we didn’t even celebrate having made it a full year. A year of ups and downs as we adjusted our way to a fulfilling retirement routine. Mind you, we’re not there yet. But, we managed to make it into Stage 4, the Reorientation Stage. With six retirement stages, we’re more than halfway there. Yipeeee!

In 1975 a professor of gerontology named Robert Atchley identified seven stages of retirement. Since then, they’ve been pared down to six. But,the bottom line is this. Retirement is such a major life transition requiring a redefining of our very role in life that no matter how much we plan, we’re bound to experience at least some of the stages. To me, the hardest stage is Stage 3, Disillusionment as in disillusionment with how unsatisfying our retirement turned out to be. However, we found we are far from alone.

For example, I recently sat in an office filling out paperwork for my appointment. When I reached the bottom of the form, which required a date, I realized even though I had an appointment, I didn’t know the date. Too lazy to dig into my purse for my cell phone, I asked the guy next to me, who was filling out the same form, if he knew the date.

“The third”, came the reply.

“Thanks. Retired,” said I by way of explanation for my lack of date information.

“Me, too,” he sighed.

I couldn’t help myself. I had to know what was behind the sigh. He seemed a little depressed, heavy. So, I queried, “Not having a good time in retirement?”

He hunched forwarded a bit in his seat and looked at the floor. “I get up every morning wondering what I’m going to do today. I’m thinking of getting a part-time job.”

“Maybe you could volunteer for an organization,” I offered.

“Yeah, I already do that but this isn’t what I thought it would be.”

With that, my name was called and I got up to leave. Before I made my exit, I turned to him and said, “What you’re experiencing is normal. You’re not alone.” He nodded his head but kept looking at the floor. This guy was in Stage 3, Disillusionment, possibly missing the structure and productivity of work, which had given his life purpose. While not everyone goes through this stage, most of us do. It’s similar to the realization, somewhere around age 40, when we say to ourselves, “Is this all there is to life?” You know that moment I’m talking about. The one where you realize you didn’t become brilliant, rich, famous, have the exciting career you dreamed about or whatever you thought would happen to your life. Well, that realization shows up in retirement, too. After the “honeymoon” of relaxation, the feeling like you’re on vacation, the relief of leaving the rat race behind, boredom sets in and you find yourself saying, “Is this all there is to retirement?”

Even Colin Powell talked about it on the speakers circuit a few years ago. After leaving his post as Secretary of State where he was constantly whisked here and there in limousines and government jets with an entourage of assistants, secret service agents and press corps, he found himself walking down Fifth Avenue in New York all by his lonesome to fetch a hotdog from the street vendor. He went on to recount how he ended up on the speakers circuit because his wife of 56 years told him unless he found something to do with his life, they wouldn’t make it to year 57. While his wife’s ultimatum may be slightly comical, she was wise enough to realize he needed to do something to recreate his purpose in life. For both their sakes, she wasn’t going to tolerate his moping. The lesson in Powell’s story is how he reoriented himself by joining the speakers circuit thus creating a new routine for himself. And…securing his marriage for at least another year.

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  1. Kathy – this is a terrific article. it is so well written and describes so perfectly the stages that most people go through. i think you may also have a calling as a writer! Good luck with whatever and wherever your retirement reorientation takes you.


  2. Glad I found this blog. Spent years planning the finance side of retirement. Never really gave much thought to the what do I do now side.
    Funny how they never mention that on the financial pages.
    So I’m 55, had to retire due to medical issues. Just qualified for SSDI.
    Money set, now what?? I’m working on the list of things around my house, but after a year, that will be done. Have 6 rental properties that fill up 10-20 hours a week. Have a 6 year old son!! Have 6 dogs. Going to have to have my neck fused soon.. with a possible six month recovery. I guess what I’m feeling is this uneasiness of not working. I’ve been working since I was 14. So I’m busy, have money, but still have this weird feeling going on inside of me. Anybody else feel like this?

  3. I am a 60 year old small business owner. Like Laurie I worked from an early age and my most recent week of work put in an excess 90 hrs for a 7 day period. My wife and I recently went to a trade conference. We stayed a few days extra expecting to relax. After the first day I was totally bored. The idea of spending my retirement watching tv struck fear in me.

    After a career of building businesses it is hard to think of doing anything else. I probably will continue to work until I can figure out what I want to retire to. Financially I could have retired at age 50, emotionally not sure if I will ever be able to. Be financially secure is a real benefit, I work because I enjoy it, not because I have to,

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