January 31, 2011

My Retirement: What Should I Expect?

Retirement is about movement. Movement from employed to unemployed. Movement from restrictions imposed by others to restrictions imposed by you. Retirement is about change. Change in how your day is structured. Change in your relationships.

If you are getting close to retirement, or have recently taken the big step, it is natural to wonder "What have I gotten myself into? What happens now?"  Some of my earliest posts on Satisfying Retirement dealt with the Three Phases of retirement and some answers to those questions. I have reworked the original material a bit and present again for your review.

When I stopped working in June 2001 little did I know that just a few months later the events of September 11 would make what I had done for a living very difficult. While air travel had become increasingly unpleasant over the previous decade, 9/11 would make that unpleasantness close to unbearable. Those of us who flew for a living were suddenly faced with tremendous time and logistics hurdles that made conducting business a major hassle. So, when I decided to stop propping up a failing business the additional burdens created after the terrorist attacks had yet to happen. It is quite possible that the first stage of my retirement life might have been quite different if my stop date had been later.

What Happened First?

My First Phase of retirement began with an incredible sense of freedom. The fear of making a wrong choice, or wondering how I would fill my days lay in the future. Waking up knowing I didn't have to pack a bag and go to the airport was exhilarating. Waking up knowing I didn't have to leave my family for several days or a week at a time was a blessing. All I perceived was endless enjoyment stretching out as far as I could see. Coffee on the back patio with the morning paper, tending my garden, going to a movie in the middle of the day, spending more time reading and listening to music...I had the world on a string. My lifestyle had altered for the better, immediately.

Did I miss the contact with clients or others I worked with? Not really. My client roster had been diminishing for the previous 4-5 years at a rather steady clip. And, as anyone who is in contact with customers knows, a few of my clients were not my favorite people. I dealt with them because they supported my family and me. But, not having to deal with those abrasive or arrogant personalities was like a breath of fresh air.

One thing my first stage of retirement didn't experience was the loss of office interaction. For most of my consulting career I worked alone. There were a few clients and industry friends who I talked with several times a week. And, I will admit that not having the phone ring or the e-mail in box full everyday did bother me a bit at first. But, the "water cooler" type of relationship was one I didn't miss because it wasn't part of my experience.

It is very possible that your experience in this regard was very different. If you had a work environment that included co-workers you enjoyed, clients or customers who were a pleasure to deal with, even a boss who treated you well and rewarded you fairly, missing that human interaction might be a large part of your first phase of a satisfying retirement.

First Phase Discoveries

During this First Phase of developing a new satisfying retirement lifestyle I did quickly discover a few things that became important:

· Time becomes a friend. Initially time is seen as a tremendous ally. Suddenly you have control of the clock. You determine how your day is to be structured. Of course, commitments to a spouse or other relationships don't stop. But, the blessings of a day and evening that lack the rigidity of your former workday fills you with a real sense of freedom.

· Self discovery is a journey that begins anew. You learn things about yourself and spouse that you never knew while working 8 or more hours a day. We've all read about the adjustments that a spouse has to make when the husband or wife is suddenly "underfoot" 24/7. It is true, even if you worked from home for all or part of your career. Unless you are single, that other human being is not used to your charming presence all the time. If you approach the process as a positive, the personality traits, thoughts, and interests of the other person gives you a chance to expand and grow yourself.

· Your "possibles" list has fewer restraints. Books you want to read, trips you want to take, projects around the house, changing a spare bedroom into den space, taking on a new hobby that has always intrigued you, involvement in volunteer work, the chance to more fully develop your spiritual side if that is your thing...the list of "possibles" can be endless. Of course, financial, family, and health care issues impose certain limits. But, those boundaries are quite a bit farther apart when you are enjoying a satisfying retirement lifestyle.

Second Phase: Reality Raises Its Head

The first "honeymoon" phase is when time stretches forever toward the horizon. You see all the possibilities of an active, productive, exciting decades-long part of your life. That euphoria can last a few weeks, a few months, even a year or more. But, at some point, virtually everyone leaves the first stage of retirement and gets a slap in the face: this is the Second Phase.

I am not a mental health professional so I can't tell you why this happens. Nor, would I even pretend to tell you how to "fix" a severe problem. Hopefully, knowing that you are not alone and that these feelings come to most everyone might make the process easier to bear.

·As you make the transition into this new phase of retirement, there is a growing sense of unease, even panic. "What did I do? Am I crazy? I'll be broke in a year! What if I get really sick?" The reality of being without the safety net that a job provided suddenly strikes you. You are the Master and Commander of your fate and that is scary. What looked so good a few months ago now looks like a shipwreck about to happen.

·Loneliness often rises to the forefront. Even if you are married and your non-working spouse is home most of the time with you, feelings of isolation from what is going on out in the world will build. You have no idea how you are going to fill all the time each day. If you are single, widowed, or your spouse continues to work that void can be even stronger.

·The benefits you took for granted while working are either gone, or curtailed. Medical coverage usually suffers. Paid vacations? No more. Pension contributions? No way. Gaining weight and losing physical and mental sharpness? Yes.

What you must keep in mind is that, this too shall pass. If you suffer a bout of moderate to severe depression that lasts for more than a month, I urge you to seek professional help. Doctors can help you get control of these serious side effects of not working. But, if you have thoughts about any of the question above and are not clinically depressed, breathe easier. The Third Phase will definitely follow.

Third Phase: Stability Returns and Real Growth Begins

Luckily for most retirees, Phase Three of your retirement arrives and can become the most satisfying. This is when you achieve a healthy balance between euphoria, panic, and reality. It is when you realize that you have the ability to make it all work for you. A happy, satisfying lifestyle is very possible. This isn't a period of Pollyanna-like thinking. It is a time when you can more calmly look at your current position, your options, and your dreamed-about future and decide what you can accomplish. It is a time of possible personal growth and development like you haven't experienced since you were in your 20's. Emotional and intellectual growth opportunities abound. Time really is your ally.

Personally, I originally thought my wife and I would take a long cruise at least once a year, spend the hot Arizona summers someplace else, like Hawaii, and maybe buy an RV and explore the country. Almost ten years later little of that has happened. Why? We retired before our financial resources were sufficient to turn those dreams into fact. But, that was a deliberate choice on our part. To continue working would not be worth the cost to our relationship or our health just so we could make those "dreams" happen. Also, we discovered the absolute joy of spending much more time with family and friends and deepening our spiritual life. We had always built our married life on experiences over things and that wasn't about to change.

Did I go through the anguish of Phase Two? Absolutely, and I still do every once in awhile during the nasty economic conditions of the last few years. But, I have developed the insight of what was really important to me so I can weather the storm, and so can you.

Questions for you: what phase are you in? How has your experience differed or matched mine? What advice can you share?

Related Posts

The Facebook experiment is going well. A link to the still-developing Satisfying Retirement Facebook page is on the right sidebar if you'd like to pay a quick visit while I'm still learning my way.

The book giveaway is now underway. As I promised in an earlier post, as I learn more about Facebook I am giving away copies of books I am using.To help you start your own page in Facebook or develop what you already have just drop me an e-mail with Free Book in the subject line to enter.


  1. Since I am planning to step off of the corporate path next month, your post was timely. I will mark it for periodic rereading in the future.

  2. Perfect, Jasmina,

    Would you do this blog a favor? Every once in awhile after you retire it would be quite helpful to us all if you could stop back and leave a brief summary of how things are developing. Retirement is such a unique process it is likely your experiences will be somewhat different from mine.

  3. Hi,
    I wish to thank you for your Blog. You have no idea how much it has helped me adjust to my new life as a retiree because it helps me understand what I am going through and gives me ideas to make the necessary adjustments.

    I am 54. I have been retired for almost four months now. I do not miss work at all. Not one second. For the past two years, I was miserable at work. All the joy had been sucked out of me. Now, that I am free of stress, the joy of living has returned. However, I do miss chatting with my colleagues. They keep inviting me to join them for lunch, but I don’t go because I do not want to know what is going on at the office. I can’t just ask them not to talk about work. So, now I talk to fewer people but when I do (at the gym, at the corner store, with family) I appreciate it more and I am a better listener because I am more focused and relaxed.

    Three months after retirement, when the excitement of not having to go to work anymore had worn off, I had a rough time. I asked myself : « So now, what am I going to do for the rest of my life» I felt as if all my days were all the same. And I hadn’t even done anything on my retirement «to-do list» I saw in your blog and in others as well (the blog « Retirement: a full-time job» has also been very helpful) that it was a normal phase and some people feel the need, at this point, to add structure to their life. And also that doing one or two things on your to-do list, per day, is the most you can hope to do, if you are lucky. I decided then to consider my retirement as a full-time job, from Monday through Friday, when I take care of my mental and physical health, and do things that bring me joy (learn a foreign language, play the piano, do exercise, try new recipes etc) and on weekends I give myself permission to relax more and put away my to-do list.

    What worries me most about the future is losing mental sharpness and becoming bored.
    I order to prevent this, I often think about taking courses and doing volunteer work. But, I decided to follow the advice of other retirees and give myself one year before committing to a new obligation.

    What I find funny is the reaction of other people when I tell them I am retired. They have that look that seems to say : «What in the h... were you thinking, you are too young for that» and «What a pity that you are wasting all that time doing nothing instead of being useful to society». It doesn’t help telling them everything I do, and that there aren’t enough hours in a day. I am still looking for a way to tell them so that they will seem as excited as I am about my new life, instead of having a pitiful look. Any tips?

    Meantime, I am really glad I decided to retire. I savour every moment of this new life that is beginning. The adventure (and purpose of life, in my humble opinion) is to be open to everything that happens (the good and the bad), and to keep on going.

    Thanks again for your wisdom. Keep up the good work.

  4. Good day,

    Thank you for visiting the blog. I really appreciate your comment and thoughts. You have summarized very well what most of us will go through or have dealt with as we navigate the retirement journey.

    The feelings you relate match up quite well with my experience. I didn't have the co-worker situation so that was a loss I didn't experience. But, the feeling of freedom, the panic about what comes next, and the questions from others are things I have gone through, too. I simply tell those who wonder if I am wasting my life that I am in control of my time and my energy, not a boss or company. I think a lot of the people who question your choices are actually jealous and envious. If they still don't accept it, I'd walk away. You don't have to be in the presence of their negative energy.

    I fought with the boredom problem for a few years. I filled my time with reading and puttering around the house and garden. Not until I found a few new interests did I really begin to use my time effectively.

    Again, welcome. Please feel free to look through some of the older articles. I attempt to cover vgirtually every subject that affects us.

  5. Wow, Anonymous, that was such a great comment, you've articulated so much of what we all go through!

    Bob: I think what accounts for that transition out of the honeymoon phase is that hedonic adaptation thing. We get used to how fabulous it is to have all this freedom and then just take it for granted. We're human that way.

    What's more interesting is how we all pull ourselves out of that phase into the third phase--it's so individual. That's what I love reading about on everyone's blogs (and comments!)

  6. Morning, Syd,

    I loved Anonymous' comment, too. He or she really put a lot of thought into it. I hope next time the person leaves a name (even a made-up one)! Like you I deeply appreciate folks who take the time to express personal thoughts and concerns.

    Your thought, Syd, on the us taking certain things for granted is dead on. Don't most of our problems in life come from that very reason?

  7. Thank you for sharing your thoughts and warnings, everyone. I'm a very young 67 and have been retired for just one month now. Phase two hit me early: before I retired I felt panicky about doing so. I put off my date for a year and then, and the end, moved my date up another month. I was an RN in post anesthesia care. My husband and I have 100% healthcare coverage and my retirement income is better than most people who work full time, so financially it's not been an issue. But I let go of that gas petal that I could put to the metal to up my income significantly. No salary, all the benefits of being an hourly worker with opportunity for OT pay. I was freaked out a bit about losing that gas petal and, consequently, my last few months, worked more hours than I had in my entire career. But I built up a very nice bank account doing so. This is mostly the financial stuff and, even though I knew I'd have a very good, and guaranteed lifetime income stream, I still felt panicky about losing my ability to rack in the dough before I even left. Finally it seems time to stop chasing money.

    There's also the psychological aspect. I retired without ever having a dayshift position--on purpose. I loved working swing shift (afternoon and evening) and having my mornings as my free time so alarm clocks were rarely part of my life anyway. Aside from that I've felt depressed already. It's been an emotional roller coaster for me--even before I left! I can feel euphoric one day and depressed the next and then back up again only to feel sad and lost all over again. No, I've never been bipolar, these are just normal emotional ups and downs. It's been interesting to observe. For me the emotional swings have been relatively rapid fire and immediate, even, as I said, before I left.

    I feel a great loss of identity and it makes me sad that I no longer belong and can no longer show up to pick up a shift here and there. I would not have retired yet except that I needed to in order to get my husband covered with my retiree healthcare. Otherwise I would have remained semi-retired for another year. Although I was working a lot at the end, my position, my shift obligation, was only every other weekend--I LOVED working weekends too, everything opposite of the usual. I had already started SS a month before I retired, when I turned 67. And I had already started collecting on my annuity too (formerly my 401k). And in taking an un-benefited position I got a 25% raise in lieu of benefits and went on Medicare! I just couldn't access my pension without actually retiring. Nor, as I said, could my husband get my healthcare coverage without me retiring. So, I retired. But I was never at the point that I fully wanted to do so. And I still feel, and look, very young.

    I did take a trip immediately after retiring-- a mediation retreat in Santa Fe and then, on my way home visited a fired in Tucson and then my sisters in Phoenix. It was certainly nice to not have to worry about depleting my vacation time bank too much or getting back to work. It was great to take all the time I wanted.

    My main point to add, I guess, is how surprised I was about the emotional roller coaster. No nurse who had ever retired before me ever mentioned it. The reports were always the same: they were LOVING it. I think now that they weren't being fully honest. It's natural to go through an identity crisis when one's work has been a significant part of who one is. Well, it's time to go enjoy the evening. Although I'm used to always having mornings free, it's wonderful to have so many evenings free to enjoy now too. It is a beautiful evening. there's no place I'd rather be than home with my husband and dogs to enjoy it.

    1. The emotional aspects of retirement are not often talked about, so thank you for raising the issue. If you look at the most recent post, and the one from March 12, 2016 you will see that the emotional toll for many is loneliness, isolation, or depression. The telephone service that is being developed should help folks who are feeling adrift connect with someone who will be a willing, sympathetic listener.


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