Counting the days? 5 emotional signs that you're ready to retire

June 8, 2022 - 16 min read

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What are the emotional signs that you should retire?

What happens emotionally when you retire?

How to emotionally prepare for retirement

Most of us think of retirement as being centered around a particular age or dollar amount. When we get to “X” years old or have “Y” amount of money, we can move on to our “golden years.” Far fewer of us recognize that retirement is as much of an emotional transition as a financial or career one.

As you approach retirement, you might start feeling nervous, excited, or both. If you’re worried about your financial security or unsure what you’ll do when you retire, you might even want to put it off for a few years. On the other hand, as retirement age looms closer, you might feel antsy about getting out of your current job. Instead of enjoying your last years or months at work, you might be fantasizing about other ways you could be spending time.

Of course, this could be true even if you’re not close to the traditional retirement age. Maybe you’ve been working in a field that’s less than satisfying. You might want to quit your job and find your life’s calling

Often, when people think about retirement, they aren't thinking of the formal definitions and requirements used by the government or their employer. Those definitions do matter, primarily for income and benefits. 

But more and more, retirement is less about leaving the workforce and more about wanting (or needing) change. Above all else, retirement is a time of transition. 

There are 5 tell-tale signs that you’re emotionally ready to retire — no matter how old you are or how much you have saved. Keep reading to learn what they are and how to recognize them.

What are the emotional signs that you should retire?

1. You can’t wait to retire

There seem to be two camps of people — those who can’t wait to leave their jobs and those who can’t imagine not working.

It's worth spending some time reflecting on why you "can't wait" and whether it feels positive or negative. That will help you design a better retirement for yourself. It might be the drag of having a fixed schedule, it might be the stress of managing responsibilities, or it might be that you're looking ahead to a compelling future.

Whatever your reasons, if you find yourself counting down the days until retirement, you’re probably more than ready.

2. You don’t enjoy work anymore

We spend a lot of time at work, so finding something we love to do is key to our well-being and happiness. If you’re feeling unmotivated, apathetic, or resentful, you might be ready to move on.

This can be difficult to navigate if you felt like your identity was wrapped up in your work. After years of focusing on your career, the thought of retirement might trigger an identity crisis.

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3. You feel like work is “in the way”

You might want to start a business, travel more, or spend time with your family. Feeling like work is getting in the way of your personal goals is a clear emotional signal that you’re ready to retire. It’s a sign that your priorities and values are beginning to shift.

4. You feel “left behind”

There are certain milestones that it seems like everyone goes through all at once. It might seem like everyone’s having babies, getting married, or buying a house (especially if you’re on social media). 

The same could happen in your work life. Your friends might seem to be retiring one after the other. Watching them revel in their newfound free time might leave you feeling a little jealous as you head to the office.

5. You and your partner are on the same page

Retirement is a huge decision. It affects your career, finances, and lifestyle. Before you decide to hand in your forever notice, you might want to have a chat with your partner. Your decision to retire will likely affect their personal finances, including your health insurance and monthly budget.

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What happens emotionally when you retire?

In general, human beings crave consistency. We tend to view almost any change — particularly major changes — as a threat to our well-being. Many people look forward to retiring, only to find that the change of pace feels unsettling. 

As it turns out, you don’t just wake up one day “happily retired.” The road to retiring successfully — like career planning, having kids, or building relationships — is a ramp, not a switch.

In 2005, AgeWave, Harris Interactive, Ameriprise Financial, surveyed retirees to gain insight into the emotional phases of retirement. They identified five emotional stages leading up to and during retirement.

What are the 5 stages of retirement?

1. Imagination

Imagination is the “dreaming” phase of retirement. At this point, you’re in the second half of your career. It’s not quite a reality yet, but close enough to fantasize about. You recognize it as the next major stage of life to look forward to.

2. Anticipation

In the last few years of your career, retirement begins to feel real. You might start to get nervous, begin making plans, or have friends who are retiring. Maybe the reality of retirement triggers a bit of an identity crisis.

3. Liberation

Whether you looked ahead to retirement with excitement or trepidation, most people enjoy their first few days of freedom. It feels like a vacation. You’re happy to have left the “daily grind” behind, and the idea of being gone for good hasn’t sunk in yet.

As you start picking up new hobbies, visiting loved ones, and tackling the to-do list, you might feel like there’s no end to the possibilities. You may laugh at the idea of ever getting bored in retirement.

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4. Reorientation

In the fourth stage of retirement, you begin to get used to your new lifestyle. You might have acclimated to your schedule, finding ways to fill your time (and enjoying the downtime too). Hopefully, you’re finding just as much fulfillment in retirement as you did in your career.

Reorientation, though, also means getting your retirement “sea legs.” If the transition hasn’t been an easy one, getting through this phase may take a while. 

Remember that your retirement doesn’t have to match anyone’s ideas but yours. You can spend your time traveling, go back to school, write a book, or work part-time. The important thing is you treat this new phase of your life as an opportunity, not an ending.

5. Reconciliation

Reconciliation happens several years into retirement, when you’ve embraced your new life. You might be busier, or may enjoy the more relaxed pace. You likely can’t imagine going back into the office. You have stability, freedom, and peace of mind.

How to emotionally prepare for retirement

If you’re not quite emotionally ready to retire yet, that’s okay. As you prepare for the next phase of your life, there are a few things you can do to help you feel more settled.

I think of this transition as being similar to having children. When I was expecting my first child, the calendar after my due date felt like a giant question mark. I had no idea what to expect or how I would feel. I handled that uncertainty by preparing for what I could, giving myself some very basic goals, and spending way too much money on baby stuff.

As you approach retirement, give yourself the same combination of future-mindedness and self-compassion that you do when facing any major change in life. Here are 3 ways you can start preparing to transition into retirement: 

1. Get financially fit

There’s no getting around it. If you’re worried about your finances, you won’t be in a rush to quit your job. Your mental health is affected by your money, whether you like it or not. If you’re worried that your retirement income won’t be enough to cover your expenses, it’ll be hard to get excited about the prospect of retirement. In addition, your financial situation may limit the activities you can do in retirement, like pursuing certain hobbies or traveling.

You can eliminate (or reduce) this concern by setting up a strong financial foundation while you’re still working. Sit down with your financial advisor (and your partner, if you have one) to do some preliminary retirement planning — ideally, well before you reach the full retirement age. Your financial planner can help you determine your retirement date, whether you have enough money saved, estimate your social security benefits, and help set a retirement budget.

In addition to meeting with an expert, you can do a little retirement legwork on your own. If your employer offers benefits, like matching the funds in your retirement account, take advantage of it. Pay off your student loans and credit card debt if you can. If you qualify for a cost-of-living or merit increase at work, consider putting the extra funds towards your retirement savings. 

The more you can do to prepare pre-retirement, the less worried you’ll be as it approaches.

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2. Embrace Inner Work®

Your career is a time when you’re (necessarily) focused on outer work — the things that you create, provide, and do. Your retirement years, on the other hand, are a wonderful opportunity to turn your gaze inward. It’s a chance to delve into Inner Work® — the quieter, reflective practices that make outer work more successful and sustainable.

Ideally, you’d be focused on doing this Inner Work® throughout your career. But many people feel silly or even guilty when they take time to focus on themselves. They worry about appearing lazy, uncommitted, and unproductive. 

With your career “behind you” (in a manner of speaking), work begins to take on a different meaning. It becomes less about earning a living and more about making a difference. In many ways, you’re starting over in life, but with all the years of experience and expertise you didn’t have when you first entered the workforce.

There are many ways to incorporate Inner Work® into your life, even if you don’t have a lot of time. You might start keeping a journal, create a vision board, or write a new five-year plan. Working with a coach can help you clarify what you want out of your “second career,” and how to align your work values with your personal values.

As you prepare for retirement, you can start imagining how you would spend your new free time. Ask yourself “What would I be doing if I wasn’t at work?” Paying attention to the answer can help you begin to shape your new identity.

3. Cultivate your relationships

Even if you don’t love your job, our work lives make up a significant part of our social interactions. Without shared lunches, water cooler chat, and knowing looks during all-hands meetings, we start to lose touch. The last few years have been a vivid lesson in the dangers of losing social connection when we work from home

When you retire, you’ll lose touch with the built-in social network your job brings, and that can be a lonely experience. You can make the transition a bit easier by beginning to cultivate out-of-work social relationships and experiences.

It’s a bit more work to make friends as an adult, but it can be a lot of fun, too. Start by signing up for a class, picking up a new hobby, or asking your existing circle to introduce you to someone new. Working part-time can connect you with others, as well. You might not spend as much time around your co-workers, but you’ll have plenty of time to build new friendships outside of the office (and you won’t have to see that one person that heats up fish in the office microwave).

Grow into retirement

No matter what age you plan to retire, it’s sure to be a bit of a transition. It's also a bit of an adventure. Go into it with curiosity about yourself and the possibilities.

Give yourself time to adjust, then reflect on how it feels and whether it is working. Don't panic if it isn't. As with other phases of your life, remember this doesn't have to be permanent either. Together with your family, you can adapt your vision, make new plans, and set new goals for your retirement.

With a little planning and a lot of self-compassion, you can look forward to retirement as a new adventure.

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Published June 8, 2022

Allaya Cooks-Campbell

BetterUp Staff Writer

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