What Are the Phases of Retirement?

Phases of retirement is a six-phase process described by researcher Robert Atchley in the 1970s that includes pre-retirement, retirement, contentment, disenchantment, reorientation, and routine. Not all individuals will experience all of these stages, but the underlying idea is to provide a framework for thinking of retirement as a process that involves both emotional and financial adjustments rather than just a one-time event. The phases of retirement are also known as the six stages of retirement.

Key Takeaways

  • The phases of retirement include a six-stage process described by researcher Robert Atchley in the 1970s. 
  • The phases of retirement are pre-retirement, retirement, contentment, disenchantment, reorientation, and routine.
  • Although not everyone will experience all of the phases, they show that retirement is both an emotional and financial adjustment.

Understanding the Phases of Retirement

A comprehensive retirement plan should consider more than just how much money one needs to save in order to leave the workforce. A strategy for tackling the emotional aspects of retirement, such as finding meaningful activities to take the place of work, will help circumvent the feelings of loneliness, boredom, and disillusionment that sometimes set in after the initial excitement of being job-free wears off.

The Six Phases of Retirement

Below are the six phases of retirement and a brief explanation of what each phase means.

1) Pre-Retirement

This is the stage when individuals save for retirement during their working years with the goal of retiring with enough money. However, many people don't consider what kind of life they want nor whether their finances in retirement will be able to give them that life. In this phase, people should also plan for their emotional wellbeing designed around determining what will make them happy in retirement.

2) Retirement

Retirement kicks in and the retiree leaves work for good. It's often a happy time. Each retiree may approach retirement differently, depending on whether they had established a plan for their new life.

3) Contentment

This positive phase is when retirees get to do all that they've always wanted to do. Some might travel while others might want to rest and relax. Many retirees visit their family, including their grandchildren if applicable. If the retiree has a lot planned, this phase can last for a while.

4) Disenchantment

This phase is when reality begins to kick in, and retirees often ask themselves; Is this it? The emotional impact of retirement can be powerful, which can include loneliness, disillusionment, and a feeling of uselessness.

5) Reorientation

In this phase, retirees pivot and through self reflection, try to determine who they are now and what they want from this stage of their life. This emotional stage involves navigating the new normal and trying to find their place in the world as a retiree. This can be particularly challenging for someone who associated their identity with their career. Finding their place in the world all over again can be both scary and exciting.

6) Routine

As retirement life becomes more familiar, retirees in this phase tend to accept their situation and begin to normalize their routines. Their daily habits become ritual and include what makes them happy. Retirees hopefully emerge from this phase with a new sense of hope, purpose, and opportunity to enjoy their life.

Coping with Retirement

Academic researchers, since Atchley's initial study, have, to a remarkable extent, confirmed his findings and expanded on this. In a paper, Donald Reitzes of Georgia State University and Elizabeth Mutran of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill explains:

First, we found general support for Atchley’s model of retirement adjustment (1976). Second, the factors that influence retirement adjustment in the data analysis revealed that:
1. Pre-retirement self-esteem and friend identity meanings, as well as pension eligibility, increased positive attitudes toward retirement at six months, 12 months, and 24 months post-retirement.
2. Retirement planning and voluntary retirement increased positive attitudes toward retirement earlier, but not later, in the first two years of retirement.
3. Poor health decreased positive attitudes toward retirement later rather than earlier in the first two years of retirement.
4. There were only limited gender effects.

Atchley suggested that about a third of older adults experience difficulty in making this adjustment to retirement. Atchley also suggested that counseling and other interventions would help these people not only have a more satisfying retirement but a better outlook on life.

"Professional counselors may not be experts in financial planning, but they can certainly help clients explore what they want their lives to look like after retirement and take steps to make that vision a reality," states the American Counseling Association. 

Wendy Killam, an ACA member and co-editor of the book "Career Counseling Interventions: Practice With Diverse Clients," told Counseling Today: “Counselors can offer career guidance, testing, and career exploration. They can give a wide number of [assessment and aptitude] tests that can help clients consider opportunities that they might not otherwise have thought of."