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Betsy McCalla-Wriggins, Rowan University Betsy McCalla-Wriggins,jpg

Individuals respond to retirement in many different ways. One person may respond to the question of retirement by saying, “I can’t wait,” while another person at the same institution working with the same people in the same position might say, “I hope I never have to retire.” What is it that causes people to have such differing responses?

As a recent retiree, I have discovered that there is not a simple answer, nor is there “a one size fits all” way to manage this transition.

Most retirement planning addresses the financial aspect, but equally important are the emotional and psychological pieces. This article will identify the key phases in the transition to retirement, suggest resources for those considering retirement, and share recommendations from my personal retirement transition journey.

William Bridges, in his book Transitions, describes three commonalities in transitions. The first phase is an ending, followed by the neutral zone which may be a period of confusion and distress, which then leads to a new beginning.

The ending phase has multiple characteristics and issues. People in this phase are beginning to disengage from activities that once had high priority, to lose their identity with a role that was once very important, to feel that things are no longer what they seem to be, and to feel lost. There is no particular order to the above phases, but they lead to the neutral zone.

Based on the individual, the neutral phase may last days, weeks or months. People in this phase often wonder what is wrong with them, feel reluctant to discuss their feelings with others, find themselves being inactive and passive, and spend a great deal of time reflecting on what is really important. This time of inner reorientation can lead to a new beginning.

The new beginning phase starts within and will not take place until the individual is ready. When a person can identify his or her passions and deep longings, then powerful motivation occurs and helps move the person to a new place.

For some, these phases occur sequentially; others may move back and forth through these phases several times, and some even get stuck in the first or second phase and never move to a new beginning.

In her book Retire Smart, Retire Happy, Nancy Schlossberg calls these three stages: Moving Out, Letting Go; Moving Through, Searching; and Moving In, Creating a New Life. Since the work environment provides many opportunities to have various social and psychological needs met, she identifies some key questions that need careful consideration in retirement planning.

  • Who am I? How do I feel about establishing a new identity?
  • To whom will I “matter”? Who will make me feel noticed, appreciated, and needed?
  • What gives meaning to my life? What do I value and makes me feel fulfilled?
  • With whom will I interact and socialize on a regular basis? Where will I feel a sense of community and belonging?
  • How will I spend my time? Do I have enough structure, routine, and activities to fill my day, both short and long term?
  • How do I feel about income change or not receiving a paycheck? Will I have enough income to do the things that are important to me?
  • What is my physical health? How will this impact my options?

Just as there are no right answers to the above questions, there is no right way to transition into this new phase of your life. However, through her research Schlossberg identified five different models that describe how many people craft this stage of their lives.

  • Continuers: These people continue to be involved in some of their previous activities, but often package them in different ways.
  • Adventurers: Individuals who start new endeavors, learn new skills, and organize their time and space in new ways are in this group.
  • Searchers: Trying out new options, learning through trial and error, stopping and starting over are characteristics of these people.
  • Easy Gliders: Going with the flow and being open to anything is a way to describe those with this approach.
  • Retreaters: People with this approach may be disengaging from life and giving up.

Some people take one of the above approaches and continue that throughout their lives. Schlossberg notes that most people are combinations of the above, although with a continuing dominant approach. At varying times in retirement there is movement back and forth through several of the models.

In reflecting on these important issues and my personal experiences, here are some recommendations for those considering this retirement transition.

  • Create a plan: Begin now and take personal responsibility for managing this important transition. Dream and visualize what you want your life to be like in this next phase. Thoughtfully reflect on the answers to the questions listed above and clearly identify what financial resources will be needed to achieve your goals. Do not be surprised if your plan changes and evolves over time.
  • Develop a timeline: Project a date in the future when you want to be in this new phase. Back map the different decisions that have to be made between now and then.
  • Research the transition options at your institution: If alternatives are not in place, find like-minded colleagues, research new options, and suggest ways to pilot them.
  • Try out your plan: If possible, structure time to simulate your new life. While nothing is totally like the “real thing,” this preview may give you some valuable insights.
  • Acknowledge your feelings: As you experience this process, don’t be surprised if your feelings range from excitement to anxiety, anticipation to fear, and certainty to uncertainty. Identify the source of uncomfortable feelings and seek to address underlying issues.
  • Find a support group: Share your feelings, fears, hopes and dreams with others who are thinking about, experiencing, or who have successfully negotiated this transition.
  • Articulate your expectations: This new phase will often alter your current relationships. By articulating your expectations to those closest to you and having them do the same, you can identify and talk through expectations that are significantly different.
  • Cultivate a positive attitude: You have complete control over your attitude. Therefore, the way you approach this new phase of your life will have significant impact on how you feel about retirement transitions.

As indicated at the beginning of this article, retirement means different things to different people. What you make of your retirement is really up to you….so start dreaming and enjoy the opportunity to make it your own.

NACADA members wishing to discuss retirement issues can subscribe to the NACADA retirement listserve. 

Betsy McCalla-Wriggins
Director Emeritus, Career and Academic Planning Center
Rowan University


Anthony, M. (2006). The new retirementality: planning your life and living your dreams-at any age you want. Chicago: Kaplan.

Bridges, W. (1980). Transitions. Reading, MA: Addison-Wesley.

Cullinane, J., & Fitzgerald, C. (2004). The new retirement. Emmaus, PA: Rodale.

Koff, A. (2006). Invent your retirement: resources for the good life. Winchester, VA: Oakhill Press.

Reiss, S. (2000). Who am I? New York: Berkley Books.

Scholossberg, N. (2004). Retire smart, retire happy: finding your true path in life.Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.

Waxman, B., & Mendelson, R. (Ed.). (2006). How to love your retirement: advice from hundreds of retirees. Atlanta: Hundreds of Heads Books.

Zelinski, E. (2005). How to retire happy, wild, and free. Berkeley: Ten Speed Press.

Cite this article using APA style as: McCalla-Wriggins, B. (2007, June). Managing the transition to retirement. Academic Advising Today, 30(2). Retrieved from [insert url here]

Posted in: 2007 June 30:2


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