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SHOULD I STAY OR SHOULD I GO? The Retirement Conundrum (Part 2)

Yes, even if the progression of stages of decision making appear logical and straightforward, that process can be completely sideswiped by emotions. Usually direct and pragmatic, my decision-making surrounding retirement was completely thrown for a loop.

Here, I bowed down to Elisabeth Kubler-Ross who wrote the definitive book on death and dying (On Death and Dying, 1969) and the grieving process. Now, retirement isn’t ‘death and dying’, but there IS a huge element of loss involved. Just think, if you have been attending the same workplace with the same people and have achieved a certain degree of self-esteem over a period of 30 to 40 years, there is going to be a sense of grief when all of that ends. As Kubler-Ross found through her research, there are stages (life seems to be about stages, doesn’t it?) in the grief process. Her stages help us to understand the ‘wacky’ emotions that might arise when we contemplate retirement and also assure that what we are feeling is completely normal.

Think of these stages as you think of the retirement decision. The first stage is denial – this can’t be happening to me, I am too young, I am too smart, I am not ready, etc. The next stage is anger – how can it have come to this, why is my work life over, life is not fair. The next stage is bargaining – maybe I can wangle the workplace to adjust my workload or my job function that will build my motivation to stay. The next stage is sadness –my time is done, everyone is younger than me, I have no worth. And the final stage is acceptance – I have done a good job, it is time for others to take over, it is time for a change, I can do this. (How to achieve this acceptance is a perfect topic for future notes!)

Further, William Bridges ( presented the Bridges Transition Model, the concept that there are three distinct emotional periods to a big change occurring (here we go again – life is about stages!). He focussed on the internal transition rather than the change itself. The first phase is an ‘ending’ during which the person recognizes what he or she is about to lose – in retirement, this might be the relationships, the status, the office space. The second phase is the ‘neutral zone’, the time between the old and the new. The person is discovering what and who he or she will become, and this time could be one of upset and stress. In retirement, who will I be now that I am no longer an employee? The third stage is ‘new beginnings’ when the person uses his or her new energy towards a new identity.

Finally, let’s consider for a moment Eric Erickson's 8 Stages in Psychosocial Development. Again, his development theory is well-known and accessible, but I referred to for a refresher. The person who is considering retirement is probably around the age of 60, give or take a few years. Erickson taught us that this stage of life, in general, is a time when a person wants to know he or she was productive before entering a stage of self-evaluation. Did I accomplish enough? Do I have many regrets? The life clock is ticking, and the stark reality hits that life to be lived is shorter than the life already lived. So much emotion!

However you choose to look at the retirement decision, it is not spontaneous and will inevitably follow some form of process or stages.

So, the unsettling emotions you might be experiencing are totally normal as you work through the process of achieving a huge life change, even though you might even be questioning your ability to make a decision!

For the employer, this is a reminder that even your most decisive employee might struggle during this time and not to minimize their emotion. Even though the prevailing thought is that retirement should be a happy time (and it eventually will be), the process can hold a large degree of sadness and turmoil as the employee experiences doubt, loss, and grieving. And that is how it should be, isn’t it? Emotion, loss, and sadness show that the employee valued his or her work and put heart and soul into that phase of life. Much better than having an employee who is just ‘putting in time’!

This obviously is just the start of the retirement discussion. There is still much to be said about the decision-making process, planning, and emotions involved. Keep posted for more thoughts - and to find out Did I Stay Or Did I Go?


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