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When we talk about getting a retirement plan together, we usually mean planning how we are going to fund our lifestyle after we’ve stopped working. But while saving for your retirement is vital, preparing yourself emotionally for this major life transition is just as, if not more important. We look at the five phases of retirement and what you can expect at these critical points of life after work.
“Many people facing retirement initially worry about their finances, but this tends to be far less of an issue compared to the psychological impact retirees can experience,” says Gary Rubin, Principal Psychologist at Reflection Psychology in Melbourne.
“Working takes up so much of our time that hobbies, social interests and self-time can get lost. Then, when that massive chunk of time and focus that was put into working is suddenly gone, people can feel lost and unsure how to even begin this new life stage,” he says.
Market researchers have developed five distinct phases of retirement to help people negotiate their emotions and expectations around retirement and fully enjoy this important time of their lives.
Phase 1: Imagination (6-15 years before retirement)
Whether you’re in your early 40s or about to turn 60, people in this pre-retirement phase begin to face the fact that retirement is no longer far off in the distant future, but something more imminent. People start to dream about what life might look like when they’re no longer working.
Jeff, 44, is a financial planner from Wagga Wagga. He and his wife Pip did long road trips together when they first met and both loved it. “My plan is to join the grey nomads at some stage and travel around parts of Australia I’ve not seen before,” says Jeff. “I dream about us buying a tiny house on wheels and having a real adventure.”
“Like many big changes in our lives, at first we imagine what it will be like, but don’t put too much time into it if it seems too far away, even if the concept excites us,” says Gary. “We then shift from dreaming to anticipating as the event seems to be getting closer.”
Phase 2: Anticipation (up to 5 years before retirement)
During this phase just prior to retiring, people begin to feel a growing excitement and relief that the daily demands of their working life are coming to a close. They’re putting money away and have usually figured out what they want to do.
Gillian, 56, has been drawing on a Transition to Retirement pension for the past 10 months after cutting back her hours at a busy hairdressing salon in Sydney’s inner west. “It’s not a lot but it comes in handy,” she says. “Plus, I’m really enjoying working less hours and having more me-time.”
For people whose career has been their primary focus, concerns about identity can be confronting, but Gary suggests exploring fresh interests, taking a class or brushing up on skills. “If you can keep an open mind, this phase can be a window of opportunity to discover and rediscover wonderful ways of living that you never expected,” he says.
Phase 3: Liberation (retirement day and the year after)
Also called the honeymoon phase, this is when the demands and responsibilities of work are finally over. Most people have plans in place to do the things they always wanted and feel excited about the windfall of time and freedom that’s ahead of them.
“Retiring gave me two gifts,” says Cecelia, 63, who retired from teaching three years ago. “It gave me time and resources. I always wanted to teach yoga but between working and raising children, I just never got around to it. When I retired, I had the money and time to do my yoga training.” Cecelia now has her own practice and runs weekly classes.
“Sometimes marriages can be challenged as couples adjust to new dynamics in their relationships including how to maintain a healthy balance of time together and time apart,” says Gary. The euphoria of this phase may only last a year or so.
Phase 4: Reorientation (2-15 years after retirement)
This phase is about moving closer towards a more balanced lifestyle with a new set of diverse interests, relationships and routines – a time to reinvent and redefine yourself.
“The initial enthusiasm about retiring can start to subside,” says Gary. “After the novelty wears off, we can come to realise that this adjustment is much harder than we expected. It’s now that retirees need to find meaningful purpose in their lives, otherwise they can become susceptible to mental health challenges as they try find ways of adjusting.”
For Victoria, 75, and Kevin, 79, contributing to their community is essential. “When we first retired from farming 15 years ago, we travelled and had a great old time,” says Victoria. “We didn’t mean to fall into a rut, but when we stopped travelling, finding things to do was a challenge. I volunteer at the library two days a week and Kevin is off to the farm helping our son and his family. It’s so important to feel useful.”
Phase 5: Reconciliation (normally 16+ years after retirement but can be sooner)
This is when most retirees feel generally content, hopeful, and accepting of being retired. Comforting routines are set in place, goals become more realistic and happiness increases.
“One thing I like about being retired is that when my phone rings, it’s someone I actually want to talk to,” says Phil, 67, who was a television producer until he retired five years ago. “We sold up and moved to the coast. I’m involved in community projects and always seem to have too much on. I feel I’m still changing and evolving as a person and enjoying life.”
It’s in this final phase that retirees are no longer thinking about retiring and planning for their retirement – they’re getting on with living it! They’re reflecting on past success and failures and bringing a lifetime of knowledge into the future with them.
“Finally, after a reasonable period of time, most people make the adjustments and create a routine and structure that brings a sense of satisfaction once again,” says Gary. “Retirement can be a fantastic life stage when you’re open to all the possibilities it brings.”