The 6 Stages of Retirement
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.
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.
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:
- During our career, work dominates our schedules. In retirement we need to figure out how we’ll fill that time.
- Related: A Week In the Life of a FIRE Household
- 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
- 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?
- Many people struggle with the loss of identity and feeling of purpose that a job and career can provide.
- The 6 Stages of Retirement Model provides a framework to deal with psychological struggles that many people underestimate.
- Related: Reasons to Live – Finding Your Purpose After Retirement or Financial Independence
6 Stages of Retirement
The 6 Stages of Retirement are:
- Retirement Routine
- 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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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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- Our Books
- Choose FI: Your Blueprint to Financial Independence
- Can I Retire Yet: How To Make the Biggest Financial Decision of the Rest of Your Life
- Retiring Sooner: How to Accelerate Your Financial Independence
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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 firstname.lastname@example.org.]
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“Disenchantment is common in people I talk to privately. I’ve certainly experienced this emotion. Yet it gets little attention publicly.”
I don’t know about it getting “little attention”. It seems to be a huge topic in current retirement preparation media. I could probably link to 10 or so posts from various sites on the topic, including the Wall Street Journal, from just the last week. This blog itself seems to talk about it a couple times a month.
Being retired early myself, the inability to find “purpose” in life without a boss or customer telling you what to do is a concept that is just so foreign to me that I have trouble taking it seriously, but given the attention it is receiving lately, I can’t deny that it appears to be a issue that gets big clicks in media, and thus must be a problem for many.
You’re right that this topic is talked about in the media and it is the topic of research on depression, “gray divorce”, adverse physical and mental health impacts of retirement, etc. But among people who write about being retired, and particularly retired early, there is a stigma about saying anything that isn’t positive about the experience because it may “hurt your brand.”
I actually had this conversation with a reader just last week. I struggle with coming off too negative when I share my story and the challenges I’ve faced. It would certainly be true to regularly share pictures and stories about my outdoor adventures, increased role as a father, new friendships, rewarding volunteer work, how my physical health is as good as it ever has been, etc. But it feels like that is what everyone is doing. I know from talking to people who are struggling that it’s important to let them know that this is a real struggle and they’re not alone. Many people need help to better navigate the challenging adjustment to this new phase of life.
So again, I could have worded that better, but I think the sentiment is correct.
What a great response to my admittedly somewhat insensitive comment.
I think a big advantage I have is being a strong introvert. I can go down the rabbit hole of reading Wikipedia articles on history, or writing code recreationally, and genuinely feel it was enriching time very well spent. Even with 40+ extra hours a week to do “whatever I want”, I struggle to find time to do everything I want.
Great topic and timely. My wife is retiring from a 35 year career in teaching coming up next month. Im a little concerned because she doesn’t have many hobbies and no real plan for what she is going to do with her time. I think she is going to get bored quickly.
Thanks Wade. I appreciate the feedback. Best wishes to both of you during this time of transition.
Social/leisure – no one I know has had any problem here. Most wonder how they found time to work at all.
Many older people struggle with this in traditional retirement. I would assume it’s probably more common among those that were burnt out and took the R&R initial approach to retirement in general. You can only lay around, sleep, and watch TV so much.
I would agree that this is likely much less of a problem for early retirees. But in my experience, having something to do and having things that feel meaningful and useful are not necessarily the same thing which leads to the disenchantment and psychological struggles many retirees face.
I believe the reorientation aspect is the “sleeping giant” for many retirees. Work used to provide a sense of identity and importance. Being retired is not exactly the most prestigious position. I also was challenged with the reorientation questions of:
Who am I now?
How will I find meaning and purpose?
What do I want to do?
For myself, this is an ongoing process that will change and evolve. Certainly, I’m not the person I was when I retired, if anything, I’m much more aware of what’s important and continuing to grow as a person.
Thanks for sharing your insights and perspective Shannon. I feel pretty much the same.
Phase 6 whizzed past, didn’t it? I’m watching my father in the beginning of Phase 6. He (89) and his wife (87) cannot travel as much as they would like. She no longer drives, but does take the golf cart to WalMart. Both are hard of hearing, even with hearing aids. She is a cancer survivor, so we are fortunate to still have both of them.
The next phase is likely assisted living of some sort. I won’t push that. We live in the same neighborhood and look in on them when they are down south; her daughter does the same at their other house.
My mother died of Alzheimer’s, and her decline was slow as well. Several years in progressively more expensive living situations.
No one wants to think about, yet experience Phase 6, but it will happen to all of us in one way or the other, so we need to prepare for it. Best wishes as you navigate this phase with your father and his wife.
Thank you for focusing on the non-financial aspects of retirement. Most assume that they will be on a quest for world travel, or very busy in service to others. I didn’t fit either model, I was almost feeling as if I wasn’t doing retirement properly. You mentioned those that need a break. I recently read about this referred to as a “comfort” retiree. A person who enjoys not working. Someone who doesn’t need to be busy all the time. Someone with a modest bucket list to be attended to in a leisurely pace. A person that is helpful to others but doesn’t make a full-time job of it. That’s me! Wish I read it sooner.
You mentioned preparing for the time when we won’t be independent with our finances and other life tasks. I am vexed by this problem. The few folks I 100% trust with my affairs are likely to be in the same boat as far declining capabilities. Perhaps I’m cynical but even good friends can change when money is involved. I’ll be scouring the web for information on this aspect. I’d love to read your expanded thoughts on the subject, sometime
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. This is exactly where I am and have been for a couple of years now. My wife and I are 57, 35 years married, 2 grown kids out on their own and finding their own way. We are active, have a good group of friends, have various hobbies and a bucket list of things to do and see. My wife has been a stay at home mom and worked part-time to make herself some mad money and get out of the house. I have been in Information Technology Management and Executive Officer Positions for 36 years and frankly, I’m burned out. I would like to tell my boss that my last day is 12/31/21, but I am having a hard time pulling the cord as this is a very emotional decision after spending everyday since high school building, saving, investing a career and good life for our family. Our financial advisor has told me the last 5 years that I am only working because I want to work, yet everytime we meet I ask him the same question, Can I Retire? He looks at my wife and she shakes her head. I tell her I need support, she tells me I need confirmation that it is OK and I although I hear it from others, I need to get through the mental block in my own head! I have made tough, timely decisions all of my life and career…why is this one such a challenge for me! If anyone has ever taken the Gallup CliftonStrengths, one of my top 5 strengths is Responsibility another is Analytical. So I am thinking that I am definitely over-analyzing this and my responsibility strength on doing everything correctly, accurately and precisely is causing my paralysis in making the decision. I’m sure I am not the only one that is or has gone through this. How did you overcome and just say What the Heck … let’s do this…it will be OK!
Paul, you have the money, friends, hobbies, and a bucket list. Thats all you need, go for it. With your experience a part time consulting gig sounds possible if you get bored. I’ll bet in a few years youll be saying, “honey you were right”. I retired at 55, my wife 49, occasionally I get bored, but its temporary. Id recommend reading How to Retire Happy, Wild, and Free by Zelinsky, it helped me realize there is plenty to do.
Thanks Mitch! Appreciate the recommendation. I will do that!
No one else is you and no one can predict your future including you. EVERYONE thought i was too “compulsive” to retire. Did anyway and now wish i had retired sooner. Try this mental trick (worked for me). Imagine your last work free summer vacation as a kid. Did you enjoy it? Want to go back? If yes, and you still have your health, then the sooner you start the better. My two cents.
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