cycle 1Retirement! Woo Hoo! Years of work that culminates in a great day of celebration and leads to a golden period of time at the end of which you gently float off to the next dimension, right?

Well, partly.

The Evidence

In 2006 Ken Dychtwald’s Age Wave released a fascinating report about the emotional stages of retirement.  The report, called “The New Retirement Mindscape Study” is available here. The authors identify several emotional stages regarding retirement: The Imagination stage is 15 to 6 years before retirement day. Anticipation is the name given to the period from 5 years before retirement up to Retirement Day. The third stage has a great title: Liberation! which lasts from Retirement Day through the following year. The Fourth stage, Reorientation, is from 2 to 15 years after retirement. From 16 years after retirement and beyond is called Reconciliation. The most interesting stage is the fourth: Reorientation.


Dychtwald’s report includes a fascinating chart showing that in the years prior to retirement, the expected satisfaction in retirement rises quickly. In other words, the closer people get to Retirement Day, the more they anticipate enjoying retirement a great deal. The satisfaction hits its absolute peak during Liberation: the period including Retirement Day and the next 12 months. After this period, however, the graphs gets ugly. There is a double black-diamond ski slope showing that satisfaction actually plummets to its lowest level in the Reorientation stage from the 2nd to 15th year after Retirement day. To summarize: satisfaction with retirement goes from its highest level to its lowest point after the 2 months following retirement. The report’s authors write, “As the thrill of retirement wears off, we observed a marked decline in enjoyment and positive emotions during the Reorientation stage (p. 6.)” Ouch.mindscap study

“The Dip”

One of the purposes of the Beer and Peanuts project is to help people avoid the dip. And for most people, it is a dip. In other words, after the 15th year following Retirement Day comes the Reconciliation stage, where satisfaction goes back up. But who wants to wait 15 years to feel good about something you worked 40 years to achieve? I believe that people can avoid the dip and maintain higher levels of satisfaction and positive feelings about their lives by participating in what I call The Cycle.

 As I have discussed elsewhere, our view of life since the industrial age has been largely seen in discrete segments: Childhood and education for about 20 years; work for about 40 years; retirement and leisure for the rest of your life expectancy. If the retirement segment lasts 12 months, satisfaction apparently stays pretty high. However, for many people, leisure and relaxation are just not that enjoyable without the context of work.

Solution: the Cycle

Our observations and conversations with hundreds of retirees reveal that some people are able to avoid the emotional let-down following retirement. In Beer and Peanuts terms, they “skip the dip.” One thing that is common for these people who maintain higher satisfaction with their lives is that they stay engaged. Rather than putting all their time and energy into leisure and lounging, they stay active with social groups, start new projects, find volunteer opportunities, and even work part-time. This doesn’t mean they have no fun. Many of them travel, take trips they have dreamed of for years, join golf leagues, etc. But they don’t expect travel and recreation to give them everything they need. The Agewave study found, “that retirement fulfillment correlates with a wide range of variables: early financial planning, having a clear vision of retirement goals, continued activity and engagement throughout retirement, financial preparedness, and leveraging professional advice (emphasis added p.12).”

 One excellent framework for how to integrate the elements of an emotionally healthy retirement is what we call the Cycle. We can think of the linear view of life (childhood and education followed by work capped off by retirement and leisure) as a ski hill or a toboggan run. Once you climb to the top of the hill at the end of your working career, you slide back down to retirement. Instead, we think that a bicycle is a better image. Just as the pedals of a bike cycle around and push whole thing forward, a cyclical approach to retirement can keep you out of the dip. Highly satisfied people tend to cycle through periods of 1) travel, leisure or recreation; 2) volunteering – including caring for relatives or grandchildren; 3) part-time work. Of course, these things can overlap at times. It is certainly possible to have a volunteer job for 4 hours on Monday and Thursday, be in a golf league on Tuesday, and go to Traverse City for wine tasting Thursday afternoon through Sunday. Or, you could spend a few winter months in Florida mostly having fun, then come back up north for the spring where you help with grandkids, work in a retail shop or as a ranger on a golf course and help out at your church on Sundays.

 Let’s Get Busy! 

There are infinite possibilities in the cycle. One man I know works at certain store for a few months until they ask him to work too many weekends or the shift gets in the way of a fun family activity. He picks the stores based on what kinds of merchandise he wants to give for Christmas presents and takes advantage of the employee discount! I know a number of teachers who have gonepart time work back to work as subs or paraprofessionals. They like the environment or miss the kids, but don’t want all the administrative responsibilities. In many places subbing is very flexible with online scheduling and the ability to select which schools you are willing (or unwilling) to work in. In many states, a bachelors degree in any subject allows you to substitute so this isn’t limited to former teachers. Some people I know have decided to drive school buses; they get the summers off, and can take extra trips for sporting events if they want the work.

OK, I know driving a school bus might not be your ideal retirement! Please just be open to the possibility that the cycle can help you skip the dip. Staying engaged with the cycle of volunteering, part-time work as well as a healthy dose of R&R really does help many people enjoy their lives more than just leisure.

One thought on “The Retirement Satisfaction Cycle

  1. This is crystal clear. Thanks for taking the time!

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