Retirement Restaged

In 2010, Ameriprise Financial, a financial planning company, conducted the New Retirement Mindscape II study to investigate attitudes about retirement. The study, based on a telephone survey of adults in the United States between the ages of 40 and 75, updated an earlier study conducted in 2005 to determine whether the economic recession of 2007-2008 had an effect on perceptions about retirement. Both studies revealed that retirement is not a single event: “People migrate through distinct and predictable stages of retirement — each with its own complex emotions and needs.”

The 2010 study modified the stages of retirement that had been identified in the 2005 study, reflecting a somewhat less optimistic attitude about retirement in general and a less enthusiastic beginning stage of retirement than had been found in the 2005 study. According to the New Retirement Mindscape II study, the six stages of retirement are:

  • Stage 1 – Imagination
  • Stage 2 – Hesitation (added in 2010)
  • Stage 3 – Anticipation
  • Stage 4 – Realization (called “Liberation” in 2005 but renamed in 2010)
  • Stage 5 – Reorientation
  • Stage 6 – Reconciliation

Imagination, Hesitation and Anticipation are all stages that occur before a person retires. Realization, Reorientation and Reconciliation unfold after the date of retirement. These stages can be compared with the phases of retirement identified by Robert Atchley which I discussed here (Remembering Anticipation) and here (What’s In a Phase?).

According to the interviews conducted in the 2010 study, most people have a positive outlook on retirement during the Imagination stage. The earliest stage of retirement occurs long before a person retires from work. At some point in their lives, people begin to imagine what retirement might be like five, ten or fifteen years in the future. They start forming ideas about how they will spend their time in retirement. Some people may set specific goals for their retirement—they may set their sights on traveling to foreign countries or buying an RV and planning the ultimate road trip, or maybe they will finally clean out the garage. Still, in the Imagination stage, retirement seems a long way off. In this early stage, people begin to think about setting money for retirement aside in personal savings or employer-sponsored plans—and some careful imaginers will actually do so–but, with retirement years away, more immediate expenses and financial obligations take precedence.

When the realization hits them that retirement may be possible in the not-so-distant future, people begin to focus more and more on their retirement goals and preparation needs. Some may even begin to think about retirement with a growing sense of enthusiasm and excitement.

Atchley identified the whole period of life before the date of retirement as the “Pre-Retirement” phase. He subdivided this phase into “remote” and “near” pre-retirement. Mindscape’s Imagination stage seems to correspond best to what Atchley would call “remote pre-retirement.”

In the “near pre-retirement” years, many people may go through a period of uncertainty, insecurity and doubt about whether they are prepared for what retirement will bring. The Mindscape study calls this the Hesitation stage. Some people may question whether they will enjoy retirement. They may lack confidence in their financial future. They may be worried about health insurance. Some people may decide to delay retirement in order to improve their financial position or to wait until they are eligible for Medicare. Some may feel hesitant about disengaging from the social support system that surrounds work.

For some, the Hesitation stage may be brief or insignificant. As their retirement date nears, they may look forward to having more control of their time. They may eagerly look forward to leaving behind the responsibilities of employment.

The Mindscape study found that many people feel empowered during the two years leading up to the date of retirement. The study labeled this the Anticipation stage. People who are near retirement are happier, more hopeful and more optimistic than people in any of the other retirement stages. The reality of retirement in the near future may be a motivation for engaging more seriously in retirement planning. Yet, anticipators may still have feelings of anxiety as the clock ticks down to retirement day.

In 2010, the Mindscape study identified the first year of retirement as the stage of Realization. Significantly, this label reflected the effects of the economic recession. The earlier Mindscape study in 2005 identified the first year of retirement as the “Liberation” stage, a time of great enjoyment, enthusiasm and hopefulness sometimes described as the “honeymoon” stage. The 2005 study found that most people felt excited about retirement and felt “liberated” from the responsibilities of work.

In contrast, the 2010 study found that the initial year of retirement was often characterized by feelings of emptiness and financial worries that muted the positive feelings of liberation and adventure. Some people may feel let down, and they may feel that they are not living their dream of retirement. For others, especially if their financial plans for retirement give them a solid foundation, the Realization stage may be less fraught with anxiety.

Atchley found that retirees could take any of three different paths during the initial years of retirement. As summarized by Christine Price, a specialist in gerontology at the Ohio State University Extension, retirees who are on the “honeymoon” path feel as though they are on an indefinite vacation. In contrast, on the “immediate retirement routine” path, retirees establish a “comfortable, yet busy” schedule of activities soon after retirement. Other retirees follow a “rest and relaxation” path, choosing to do very little in their early retirement years. None of these paths reflect the “let down” stage of Realization identified in the Mindscape II study in the aftermath of the 2007-2008 recession.

After about a year of retirement, people enter the Reorientation stage, according to the Mindscape II findings. Retirees adjust their expectations about retirement. Routines and goals are modified, and retirees feel happier. This period of adaption to a retired way of life generally lasts from two to fifteen years after the date of retirement. During this stage, some people discover that retirement is more challenging or “just different from what they expected.”

In comparison, Atchley describes a separate “Disenchantment” phase which some retirees may experience after an initial honeymoon or period of rest and relaxation. The Disenchantment phase shares the characteristics of the Realization stage described in the Mindscape II study. Atchley’s Disenchantment phase is a period of disappointment or uncertainty when the retiree may feel empty or let down. Disenchantment, though, is a prelude to Reorientation. In the Reorientation phase, the retiree takes stock and revises expectations. The retiree’s experience of retirement evolves into something more satisfying.

In Mindscape’s Reorientation stage, there are four “distinct experiences” that may occur, according to the original study in 2005. This variety of experience seems to reflect individual personality differences.

“Empowered Reinventors” experience Reorientation as a time of adventure, new challenges and fulfillment. Doing meaningful or satisfying work is important to them. Compared to others in this stage, they invest more time planning travel adventures, engaging in activities with their families, volunteering, and practicing a “healthy life style.”

“Carefree Contents” feel optimistic about retired life, but unlike the empowered reinventors, they are less interested in new adventures and challenges. They are content to be adjusting to a “less frantic lifestyle” without the stresses of work.

“Uncertain Searchers” have mixed feelings about retirement and are “still trying to figure out what to make of this time in their lives.” They continue to search for goals and activities that will give them purpose, meaning and fulfillment in retirement.

In a remarkable finding, the Mindscape study placed 40% of retirees in the category of “Worried Strugglers.” Strugglers have fewer aspirations than others in the Reorientation stage. They are likely to admit that they gave little thought to what they wanted to do in retirement, and now, deep into their retirement years, they are more likely to feel a sense of “emptiness.”

The Mindscape II study described Reconciliation as the final stage of retirement. Reconciliation typically occurs sixteen or more years after the date of retirement. Retirees in this final stage must cope with physical difficulties of old age and the loss of social connections. Travel, hobbies and volunteering become less important even as these activities are more physically challenging. While most retirees in this stage remain happy, some may feel anxious or depressed. The 2005 Mindscape study described this stage in more hopeful terms as a time of “relative contentment and acceptance.” The study found that most retirees “come to terms with what retirement has to offer” and yet they experience sadness as they begin to confront end-of-life issues with families and friends.

Atchley described a phase of Stability following the Reorientation phase. Stability can be a comfortable and rewarding phase of retirement that can last for many years. Price describes Stability as the phase in which retirees may achieve the ultimate goal of retirement: mastering a comfortable and rewarding retirement routine.

Atchley described the final phase of retired life as the Termination phase. After the years of Stability, retirees begin to experience disability or illness or may otherwise become less able to live independently.

The Mindscape study included the last years of life as part of the Reconciliation stage. In these years, many retirees face the challenges of limited income and the loss of social connections. Although most people continue to feel happy, some may feel depressed and find less pleasure in retirement (and less pleasure in life).

The 2005 Mindscape study looked beyond the stages of retirement and drew a broader conclusion from common themes running through all of the stages:

So, what is the secret to a fulfilling retirement? Our study demonstrates that retirement fulfillment correlates with a wide range of variables: early financial planning, having a clear vision of retirement goals, continued activity and engagement throughout retirement, financial preparedness, and leveraging professional advice. As it turns out, money is not what buys happiness in retirement: having a vision for the future and planning for that vision are as important as money in achieving a fulfilling retirement.

The emphasis on the importance of financial planning and having professional advice may reflect a bias considering that the Mindscape studies were sponsored by Ameriprise Financial. Nevertheless, the comparisons between the Mindscape retirement stages and the phases of retirement that had been identified earlier by Atchley and others is a confirmation of the validity of thinking of retirement as a series of steps, phases or stages, rather than a singular event.

It is comforting to know that my perceptions about retirement will change and that any feelings of anxiety or emptiness that I experience are transitory. Looking back, it seems that I anticipated retirement well enough. So far, at least, it seems that I planned for retirement with adequate financial foresight. I did not set unreasonable goals for what I would do in retirement—but it is closer to the truth to say that I did not set any goals for myself during the anticipation stage. Now that I am in year two of my retirement, I have entered the Reorientation stage, according to the Mindscape study. I am somewhere between feeling carefree-ly contented and empowered to reinvent myself (and how will I say that in Spanish?). I feel empowered to set new goals for my future—and maybe I will go to Peru with my wife—and yet I do not have to feel overpowered by goal setting. Atchley too describes a phase of Reorientation, a time of “taking stock” and revising expectations. I suppose that I am taking stock in my own fashion. I had only vague expectations about retirement, and so perhaps there is a vague kind of revision going on, though I am not really aware of it.

Reorientation could take years, according to the Mindscape study—although it seems to me that years of failing to achieve orientation could be unhealthy. It is unclear whether retirees ever get oriented before they have to face the rigors of Reconciliation, in Mindscape’s view. In contrast, Atchley gives us a phase of Stability to look forward to. When Stability is reached, a retiree may achieve the ultimate “rewarding retirement routine.” The prospect of achieving a “routine” does not fill me with inspiration and hope, I must say. Nor can I get very excited about Mindscape’s “secret to a fulfilling retirement”—which is revealed to be “having a vision for the future.” Apparently, just having a vision is enough. You don’t have to realize that vision in order to feel fulfilled as a retiree. There are some visions of the future that I would very much prefer not to realize in my lifetime (though I am sure that the Mindscape authors had only happy, positive visions in mind).

For one who was not particularly “oriented” when I entered retirement, this time in my life—the early years of retirement—feels more like a time of orientation rather than reorientation. It can be a time of choosing some goals rather than revising goals. My vision of the hoped-for future is still in the process of being shaped, but if it will be a “routine,” then I am shooting for an expansive definition in which the unexpected delight and the serendipitous discovery are part of the ordinary.

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