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Retirement from work is a process and it helps to know its stages

Q. I am a divorced women age 67 and lost my job due to the pandemic. Being eligible for retirement and having no family close by, I thought it was a good time to move from Iowa to a sunny senior community. Unfortunately, I did not think about what retirement would actually look like. Now I am at a loss. The clubs, pickleball and other activities just don’t do it for me after a 35-year management position. Is retirement a process and how do I get to a more fulfilling life? K.M.

Thank you for your important and timely question. With the pandemic, more people have retired because of vulnerability to COVID-19, job loss, their own health issues as well as rethinking what is important in their lives. These are some of the reasons that more than 3 million Americans have taken early retirement.

You asked if retirement was a process. The late noted sociologist Robert Atchley would have responded with a resounding, “Yes.” He viewed retirement as a process consisting of several phases entailing a series of adjustments. Not everyone goes through the phases in sequence nor are the phases connected to one’s chronological age. Although Atchley’s work dates back to the mid-1970s, the model is still relevant today with some added interpretations.

Phase 1: Pre-retirement. This is a time when individuals are thinking about retirement, doing some planning and considering the possibility of letting go of their jobs.

Phase 2: The retirement event and exit. Employers might hold an event to honor the soon-to-retire employee and might even present the person with a gift. During the pandemic, this was unlikely to occur. Nor does this occur for everyone. What typically follows the event is the actual exit from one’s primary job.

Phase 3: The honeymoon. Work is gone and retirement is experienced as a new carefree time of life, being able to do what you want to do, when you want to do it with no alarm clocks, schedules or commutes. It’s a time when many see their retirement as an opportunity to play, travel, visit family and friends, take vacations and pursue leisure activities. It’s a time to see and experience the world. Some who become over-scheduled say, “I am so busy, I don’t know how I ever found time to work.” The honeymoon phase can last a few months, years or even the entire period of retirement.

Phase 4: Disenchantment. For some, this is a time of disappointment, uncertainty and even sadness when retirement does not meet one’s expectations, particularly if those expectations were optimistic. Atchley found two predictors of such frustration and discontent: poor health and lack of finances. If we did a study of the predictors today, we likely would find additional predictors such as lacking a sense of purpose, feeling useless and having no role or identity.

Phase 5: Reorientation. After the honeymoon and some disappointment, retirees often ask, “Now, what? How do I want to spend the rest of my life?” Retirees think about whether or not to make some modifications, reorder priorities and embark on taking an inventory of their retirement experience. They reassess their situation in a more realistic way and may consider their never-ending vacation is not as fulfilling as they thought it would be.

Phase 6: A period of stability. This is a period of consistency and clarity of priorities and what is important. Retirees adapt to retirement with some routine in their lifestyle and can cope and adjust to usual changes that can accompany longevity.

One of the major points advanced by Atchley is that retirement is a dynamic period of life. For example, one can retire and spend the rest of one’s life in the honeymoon phase. One also can retire and go right into disenchantment, move to honeymoon, then to reorientation with a final move to stability.

The notion of retirement as a dynamic period of change may not sound like advanced thinking. However, we are reminded that it is relatively recent that older adults have been recognized as being able to grow, adapt, change, continue to learn, start new businesses, begin an encore career, give back to society in significant ways and exhibit resilience.

Retirement is a period of change that occurs along the life course with phases, adjustments and opportunities. It is a new life stage that can be equal to or even more rewarding than one’s job or career.

K.M. Thank you again for your important question. Next week we’ll discuss some highlights in creating one’s next chapter.

Helen Dennis is a nationally recognized leader on issues of aging, employment and the new retirement with academic, corporate and nonprofit experience. Contact Helen with your questions and comments at Visit Helen at and follow her on


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