Beware of the first months of retirement and their emotional challenge.


The word ‘retirement’ can conjure up enticing images – long walks, travel, new hobbies, fun with grandchildren and more. But the reality can be very different. Especially during the first months of this new adventure.

This is because transition from fulltime work comes with an emotional challenge. It’s a challenge that even leads some to be less open with the truth than perhaps they should be.

This has been revealed by research from the Harvard Business School led by Professor Teresa Amabile. She says, ‘For many, the first months of retirement can involve an existential crisis. It can be a very dramatic moment, with many retirees facing a psychological battle for self-discovery.’

Admittedly, this four year Retirement Transitions Study focusing on 120 professionals and their views of retirement, is from the US. But it still has important insights for all making the retirement transition.

What stands out from the research is that, for many, the first steps into retirements are somewhat blissful. With an empty calendar and no need for an alarm clock in the morning being beautiful things.

Prof Teresa reports, ‘Most people are very happy right from that first morning.’ But, for many, this doesn’t last long. This is because they struggle with restructuring their lives and letting go of a big part of their identity as employed people.

The evidence for this is clear from the responses when retirees were asked by the researchers how they described themselves.

Some harked back to their significant role in the past saying ‘I’m a retired librarian’ or ‘I’m a retired teacher or ‘I’m a retired research chemist’. Others even denied being retired, naming their past role even though it was no longer theirs.

Says Prof Teresa, ‘We asked them why they did this and it’s because they don’t want to be seen as someone out to pasture. One person said “I don’t want to be seen as yesterday’s news I want to be the news right now”.’

This points to something important, stresses Prof Teresa, saying, ‘People think of planning for retirement as a financial exercise, and that’s all. But it needs to be a psychological and relationship exercise as well.’’

She sums up the issue saying that when our formal career ends ‘We need to think about who we want to be. The people in our study who do that, tend to have a smoother transition.’

According to Prof Teresa, when someone leaves behind the structure and identity that goes with their employment ‘they need to be ‘an architect of a new life structure and, often, a new identity’. This ‘identity’ being one where they, ‘build a new life and explore new activities, relationships, and ways of thinking about themselves.’

This led to the researchers uncovering something they called building ‘identity bridges.’ They saw retirees using these as a strategy for preserving continuity between life before fulltime work and life afterwards.

Some of these ‘identity bridges’ include what the research team described as –

  • Activating a latent identity – doing so by rediscovering a passion they were not able to pursue while working fulltime.
  • Giving more time to a relationship not possible before – perhaps with grandchildren or adult children.
  • Maintaining a life philosophy – an attitude that helps remain positive despite retirement’s challenges.
  • Finding a new source for valued affirmation – establishing relationships and taking up roles that provide the kind of positive feedback experienced back in the workplace.
  • Using their workplace skills in a new way – often by volunteering.

This didn’t happen overnight, the study reveals. Prof Teresa says that although most welcomed the freedom and flexibility, many retirees described unexpected feelings of being at loose ends. And it typically took from six months to two years or more for them to sort through their thoughts and feelings.

Stressing the importance of this research Prof Teresa says, ‘These are important findings because they can make people more aware of the psychological challenges of moving into retirement And if people can be more consciously aware of the need to bridge with one or more of these strategies, they might feel less discomfort along the way.

Want more in making the transition to retirement? Check out these past AfterWorkNet blogs –

Want to make most of your transition to retirement? Here’s the 4 must-dos.

What might God’s plan be for the early months of retirement? Ready for a surprise?

What’s your experience of the first months of life after fulltime work? Please tell all either here or on the AfterWorkNet Facebook community

Peter Meadows

Peter is AfterWorkNet’s Programme Director. He’s using his retirement to help churches, resource inter-church initiatives, and escapes to Spain when he can.

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The word retirement is not even in the Bible. What is taught in scripture is transition. There is nothing that says you work most of your life and then get to be selfish for the next 20 years"

Rick Warren, PurposeDrivenLife