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In his book The Second Mountain, David Brooks describes “Vampire Problems.” These are transformative choices you have to make in one stage of life. They require guessing what you’ll want and like in a later stage of life. 

Compass pointing towards a new life

The book in general, and that concept specifically, wasn’t about retirement. However, it encapsulated the challenges that I and so many readers I’ve spoken to struggled with when contemplating the retirement decision. I’ve had this on my list of topics to write about since reading the book last fall. But I could never figure out what to do with it.

Early retiree Ted Carr recently shared a presentation he gave about The 6 Stages of Retirement with me. Sociologist Robert Atchley originally developed The 6 Stages of Retirement concept.

In his presentation, Ted pointed out that retirement is disruptive and we can’t predict how we’ll respond. This was the exact sentiment of a “Vampire Problem” applied to the retirement decision in a way I couldn’t figure out how to communicate. The presentation resonated with me, so I want to share some key ideas in it with you.

Retirement Adjustments

In his presentation about the 6 Stages of Retirement, Ted points out that retirement disrupts several key areas of our lives. This can be disorienting, uncomfortable, and often leads to disenchantment for people as they adjust to retirement. The four areas of disruption are:

  1. Social/leisure
  2. Financial/legal
    • This is often the focal point of retirement planning, including the majority of the content on this blog. 
    • There are many advisors, coaches, etc. who focus on working with people to address the financial aspects of retirement.
    • Despite the attention given to this domain, many of us still struggle with the transition from receiving a paycheck and saving while working to spending down assets in retirement.
    • Related: Retirement Mindset Shift – Saver to Spender
  3. Health/healthcare
    • For many of us an employer dictates our health insurance options. Retirees are responsible for making these choices for themselves.
    • There are professionals who focus solely on helping people address these challenges.
    • Related: Retirement Healthcare – What Are Your Options?
  4. Psychological

6 Stages of Retirement

The 6 Stages of Retirement are:

  1. Pre-retirement
  2. Retirement
  3. Disenchantment
  4. Reorientation
  5. Retirement Routine
  6. Termination of Retirement

I’ll discuss each, but I want to focus on 3-6, because the first two already get a lot of attention here and elsewhere.

Pre-retirement

Pre-retirement is the process of planning and disengaging from the workplace in the months to years leading up to retirement. This blog is loaded with content on this topic, and Darrow’s second book, also titled Can I Retire Yet?, addresses this topic in an organized structure.

Retirement

The second phase can be broken down into three approaches taken by different individuals.

  • Honeymoon Phase: Retirement is initially viewed by some as an indefinite vacation characterized by traveling and pursuing other passion projects we didn’t have time to do while working.
  • Immediate Retirement Routine: Some people who already had busy routines outside of work will quickly expand the time spent on these activities to fill the time work used to occupy.
  • Rest and Relaxation: Others had such exhausting careers that they need a break. Taking time to unplug and rest is how they envision an ideal retirement.

These aren’t mutually exclusive, but most of us will relate with one more than the others. Reflecting back, I most identify with the idea of Immediate Retirement Routine.

On the first page of the Choose FI book I expressed this idea:

“I accomplished my goal of financial independence (FI) and retired at forty-one years of age, sixteen and a half years after beginning my career as a physical therapist. Friday, December 1, 2017, was my last day at my job.

So how did I spend the first Monday of the rest of my life, a day when I could do whatever I want? You’re reading it….(Writing this book) is the thing I most want to be doing with my life right now.”

In addition to writing the book I started working on this blog. I also spent much more time with my family and adventuring outdoors. In other words, the things that were already priorities in my life became bigger priorities that filled my days.

Disenchantment

Whatever we need initially, many of us find ourselves in a phase of disenchantment after a period of time. I found the idea that disenchantment is one of the six common and predictable phases of retirement interesting.

Disenchantment is common in people I talk to privately. I’ve certainly experienced this emotion. Yet it gets little attention publicly. Many people romanticize retirement as being the time to do whatever you want. 

We live in a world where many people don’t choose to retire at all. The decision is frequently made for older workers when their employer downsizes or favors younger, cheaper workers. Poor health forces some people out of the workforce. The need to be a caregiver pushes others out.

Many people reading this are privileged. We focus on retiring securely and on our own terms.  Many readers are contemplating retiring years or even decades earlier than most people.

We “should” be happy

Yet many of us struggle with this phase of disenchantment. Why aren’t we happier? Should we be doing something more with our lives? Or something completely different?

It shouldn’t be surprising that we don’t know what we want in retirement. We have to predict what will make a future version of ourselves happy and fulfilled from the perspective of the person who is still working and has never lived that experience.

Understanding that disenchantment is a common phenomenon is helpful. The feeling is disorienting. The last thing we need when we’re already struggling is to feel shame that prevents us from talking about it and seeking help.

Disenchantment isn’t a result of poor planning. There’s nothing inherently wrong with you if you experience disenchantment in retirement. It is natural, spurring us to figure out what comes next.

Reorientation

What comes next is reorientation. In his talk, Ted frames this stage as Retirement 2.0. This is a second chance to plan your retirement. It is a time to deal with existential questions with the benefit of new experience, insight, and wisdom after having spent some time on the other side of your original career.

  • Who am I now?
  • How will I find meaning and purpose?
  • What do I want to do?

This is the phase where I currently most identify. After feeling disenchantment, even going through a period of depression last year, I’ve given myself some grace. I no longer feel I need to have all the answers.

These are challenging, life defining questions that take time to figure out. Or maybe we never completely figure them out and lifelong growth and learning is the ultimate answer.

Retirement Routine

The fifth stage of retirement is mastering a comfortable and rewarding routine. It can occur quickly or take years for traditional retirees to find.

For early retirees, particularly FIRE types with potentially 40+ year retirements, we’ll likely need to go through several cycles of reorientation and develop new retirement routines multiple times. Our roles and those of the people around us will change as kids grow, friendships and relationships end and new ones begin, we discover new interests and hobbies, and we seek new challenges in our lives.

Termination of Retirement

The final phase is an acknowledgement that our retirement roles become less important as we age, lose our independence, and ultimately die. This idea can be morbid. 

I choose to have it serve as a reminder to cherish the time we do have, continue to reorient, develop new routines, foster relationships, seek novel adventures, and become a lifelong learner to make for a life worth living. Understanding that termination of retirement is inevitable is also a reminder to prepare for this time when we won’t be independent with our finances and other life tasks.

Learn More About The 6 Stages of Retirement

I want to thank Ted for introducing The 6 Stages of Retirement to me. I would encourage you to watch his talk in its entirety.

It will be particularly helpful for those of you:

  • Stuck on the retirement decision even though you’re confident you have enough money because you’re not sure what comes next, or
  • Dealing with the disenchantment and disorientation that is common because life after financial independence or retirement doesn’t feel quite like you think it should.

I also recently appeared on the Later2FIRE podcast with Ted and his wife Claire. We discussed applying principles of FIRE later in life to catch up on saving and achieve a secure retirement. We also went into more depth on the ideas of developing a meaningful life after financial independence. You can check out our full conversation here.

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[Chris Mamula used principles of traditional retirement planning, combined with creative lifestyle design, to retire from a career as a physical therapist at age 41. After poor experiences with the financial industry early in his professional life, he educated himself on investing and tax planning. Now he draws on his experience to write about wealth building, DIY investing, financial planning, early retirement, and lifestyle design at Can I Retire Yet? Chris has been featured on MarketWatch, Morningstar, U.S. News & World Report, and Business Insider. He is also the primary author of the book Choose FI: Your Blueprint to Financial Independence. You can reach him at chris@caniretireyet.com.]

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