Navigating The Six Stages Of Retirement

“This is a new and different world. The challenge is to cope with it; not just cope but thrive. India, like life itself, I suppose, is about what you bring to it.” These are a few words from the script for Judi Dench’s character in the movie, The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel (2011). She reflects on the enormous change she and others have made when they moved to India to live out their retired years; when they realize that retirement is a different and uncharted world for the uninitiated. And like any major change, it has its own transition cycle. How we manage through that cycle determines, in large part, how successful we are in managing ourselves through the transition. Six unique stages in transitioning to retirement characterize this change, each one bringing with it a new set of challenges and opportunities.

  1. Anticipation: Ah! Those delicious dreams of the day when we’ll say: “Hi honey, I’m home, for good.” The light at the end of the tunnel grows brighter each day as we wait with bathed breathe for those wonderful leisurely days when we have time to do what we please instead of meeting the expectations of everyone else. We can see it, we can taste it, we can smell the sweet elixir of a life that is 100% ours to create as we wish
  2. Arrival: The day has finally arrived. The time around the big day is often loaded with nostalgic thoughts of the great work that was part of our life’s journey for so long, the recognition of all that one has accomplished and a tinge of sadness that it is all coming to an end. It’s time for goodbyes, dinners and celebrations of a full and successful working life. The retirement gift adds to the mood of a joyous, celebratory event. Uncertain of what lies ahead, we nevertheless choose to greet this day with joy and immense hope that all will be fine.
  3. Excitement: The blissful joy of immersing oneself in the pure pleasure of nothingness. Life feels like one giant vacation. There are projects waiting to be tackled, honey-to lists and vacations to take. All that heady excitement has one believing that life is one giant leisurely stroll.
  4. Questioning: Then the questions start coming. “What now?  Am I becoming irrelevant? Why do I feel so disconnected?  What is my purpose now? The emails, calls and lunch invitations from former colleagues slow or stop. The days feel longer somehow. The excitement has worn off and the realities of being “retired” set in. Thoughts of starting something new or wondering what else to do to keep busy and engaged start taking up more space and time. It is during this period that we are most vulnerable, where it is easy to get caught up in brooding over regrets, lost opportunities and things that never were or never will be.
  5. Reflection: A new period of wonderment sets in and the focus changes from “now what” to “what’s possible” with all the time at our disposal. This period can be very creative and open up new possibilities that were not likely visible before. It’s time to think outside the box and create a whole new bucket list, one that captures our thoughts and dreams, one that is anchored in core values and feeds the soul like never before.
  6. Acceptance: Once the storm has passed and new ideas have percolated, it’s time to embrace the new norm that is this stage of life and make the most of it. Nerves settle down, emotions steady and reality becomes clearer. Life becomes easier.

The event itself of “retirement” is wholesale and free of emotions, but the transition that ensues is often emotionally charged and an extremely personal journey that sways on a pendulum from fear to exhilaration, often at the same time. The transition can only be understood by those who are having the experience as they move through these six transitory stages. The good news is that humans are hardwired to manage change and, in large part, successfully. Change creates opportunities for new and once unimaginable growth to take shape and forces one to leave behind a part of the essence of the current self in order to grow more magnificent in the emerging self. Instead of going through a cycle questioning relevance and what’s next, what if we moved stage 5 – reflection, before retirement actually begins?  That would accelerate and smooth the transition process. Reflection would allow for insights and clarity to bubble up and for new possibilities to emerge. Rather than leave retirement to change or to fate, why not take charge and make it happen, on your own terms? Let’s make sure we are thriving, not simply coping.