What’s In a Phase?

In Remembering Anticipation, I talked about the first phase of retirement. Robert Atchley is generally credited with describing the unfolding of retirement as a series of phases. Atchley called the first phase “pre-retirement.” Because pre-retirement occurs before actual retirement begins, one is tempted to quibble whether it is a phase of retirement at all. It is not so important, though, whether “pre-retirement” is included as a phase of retirement or whether it is a separate stage that we enter when we start to think seriously about the end of a working career. Pre-retirement is not exactly part of retirement itself, but yet it also is not entirely business as usual in our working lives. Pre-retirement is a part of the total retirement catastrophe experience.

The “pre-retirement” phase is applicable as well to “serial retirees.” It seems fairly common for some people to retire from work and spend a stretch of time experiencing life without working for a living. After a while, though, serial retirees resume the status of regular employment. Serial retirees go through one or more periods of off-time when they take retirement for a spin. Then they resume the working life—maybe they miss the companionship of the workplace, or the challenge of work, or the feeling of making a contribution that work gives them. Whatever the reason, they choose to become “unretired.”  Some may repeat this cycle a few times before their ultimate retirement happens.

Retirement—ultimate retirement—is curiously difficult to define. It is largely a state of mind. I began retirement as 2012 ended.  It was not simply that I chose to leave my job. I took on a new perspective. I had turned a corner, begun a new chapter.  I did not rule out the possibility of getting paid for work in the future, but it would be different—less about the money, more about the nature of the work. I am 99% sure that I am not a serial retiree. I have crossed a threshold into actual retirement.

Atchley described four phases that people experience after leaving the pre-retirement phase:

  • Honeymoon
  • Disenchantment
  • Reorientation
  • Stability

These four active retirement phases, together with pre-retirement and the final phase—termination of retirement—make up the six phases described by Atchley. In some descriptions of Atchley’s work, however, there are seven phases or eight phases. For example, pre-retirement can be broken down into separate “remote” and “near” phases. Others (see Adjusting to Retirement) list a “rest and relaxation” phase, squeezing it in between the honeymoon and disenchantment. (I guess it all depends on how exhilarating your honeymoon has been.)

I don’t think the extra phases add a whole lot to the discussion. It seems to me that four active phases are quite sufficient. The four phases listed above can accommodate the whole range of retirement transitions.

In the honeymoon phase, the newly-retired person feels euphoric. There is a sensation of liberation from the yoke of work. Some people in the final years of their career have fantasized about what retirement would be like, and the honeymoon phase is when those fantasies are lived out or truth-tested. In this phase, retirement seems like an indefinite vacation.

Year one of my retirement did not feel like a vacation. That could be because I was never very good at vacationing before I retired.  I have commented elsewhere, though, that retirement seemed like a never-ending weekend.

The disenchantment phase is a period of uncertainty and disappointment. There is a sensation of emptiness. The retiree may feel that something is missing—specifically, the retiree may miss the engagement of work and making a contribution. The retiree feels let down and may become depressed. The panic feeling described by blogger Bob Lowry reflects the disenchantment phase, I think. It is important to remember, however, that retirement is a process and that phases are transitions. Some transitional disenchantment might be a necessary or inevitable phase of adjustment to retirement.

Beyond disenchantment lies the reorientation phase. The transition experienced during reorientation is one of taking stock. It is a period of revising expectations, of pursuing a more satisfactory style of retirement life. Reorientation calls for an attitude adjustment. Reorientation may feel like having a second chance at getting retirement right. The transition is about—finally—discovering one’s role as a retired person.

The stability phase is a kind of golden plateau. Stability is the ultimate goal of successful retirement, the experts say. The stability phase is characterized by settling into a comfortable and rewarding niche. Stability has also been called the “retirement routine” phase, although it is important, I think, to distinguish the routine of stability from routines that may be experienced in earlier stages of retirement—routines that may involve a schedule of holdover activities that began before retirement and that later become old and boring. Boredom cannot be a part of the routine experienced in the stability phase. With luck and good health, stability becomes a long-term phase of retirement that produces feelings of satisfaction and fulfillment.

All things must pass, and eventually one enters the termination phase. In the termination phase—also more figuratively called “fermentation”—there is a gradual loss of independence due to disability or illness. It is a transition from the role of an active retiree into the role of a less active elder.

My experience with retirement is limited. I am just a one-year-old retiree. I haven’t felt euphoric, which makes me feel that somehow I missed out on the honeymoon phase. But the “honeymoon” label may be misleading. Maybe the honeymoon phase is not about excitement or celebration so much as it is about the newness of retirement.

My theory about the four active retirement phases is that they are not necessarily a progression with clear demarcations between each phase. Phases can overlap—one might have moments of disenchantment even during the honeymoon or one might glimpse what a stable routine might look like even as one experiences disenchantment. I also believe that the transitions may be experienced simultaneously, although there continues to be an ultimate goal of satisfaction and stability.

I come back to the idea that the identification of phases of retirement provides a framework for thinking about the process of retirement. Thinking of retirement in phases underlines the transitional nature of retirement. Retirement is not simply an event, it is a stage of life and a period of time in which we must find our new role and find our own way.

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