Recognising the big changes retirement can bring—Part 2

Retired engineer feeling thoughtful thinking about changes

Image: Yacobchuk/

Life restructuring is one of the big changes that comes when an individual retires. Understanding what happens can help you transition into retirement.

Part 1 of this three-part series gave an overview of transitioning to retirement and about research by Teresa Amabile, a professor at Harvard Business School, and her team. Here we look specifically at the life restructuring process.

She suggests that there’s a four-step process involved in restructuring your life in retirement.

  1. The retirement decision

Amabile calls for the decision to retire a life structure decision because it involves such things as: when you plan to retire; how you will retire (which could involve a part-time transitioning process); and what you’re going to do in retirement.

‘It’s also a decision about your relationships,’ she says, ‘because many people—in fact, most in our study—are partnered. They have a spouse or a significant other who they share their life with.’

She tells of a husband who retired while his wife was still working. She came home after the first day of his retirement to find her spice rack alphabetised. He admits, ‘I drove my wife crazy.’

She was the homemaker of the two and her space and her own life structure was being invaded after 30 or 40 years when he had little involvement in such things. With couples, it can take negotiation.

He’s learned his lesson and is now a volunteer and has a weekly appointment with friends in his neighbourhood as part of his structure.

  1. Detaching from work

For some this is easy: ‘It’s like they’re just taking off a backpack,’ says Amabile. For many, it isn’t so easy.

Some want to keep in touch with the workplace. Some ‘lurk’ on Facebook trying to keep up with what’s happening. Or when they get up in the morning they do things like handle their emails—like they did first thing at work.

Some ‘have a hard time moving on at least mentally, even if they’re not engaging in work activities, they’re thinking about it a lot and they feel that they’re still in that world.’

It can take time to detach from the workplace, even when you no longer work. And that’s natural when it has been so much a part of your life.

  1. Managing the liminal phase

‘Liminal means betwixt and between—kind of in the midst of change of some kind. People have different strategies for approaching this. Some plan very carefully.’

She tells of one person, a senior project manager, who said he felt he had something to give back by writing a book about project management or teaching a course.

A couple of years after retiring, the researchers discovered he hadn’t done either. Amabile suggests that he probably did what many people do—relax into their retirement and get other priorities.

With the research, the last question asked was: ‘What’s the best thing about being retired so far for you?’

‘A surprisingly large number of people say not waking up to an alarm clock. And many others will say something on the order of the freedom, the flexibility I have to structure my day as I want.’

At the same time, it can take some who enjoy the lack of structure in their life quite a while to ‘architect’ the time they now have.

  1. Consolidation of the new life structure

This is when retirees are at the point where their new life has structure—a new structure after they’ve finished work. Many of those interviewed felt their life was working for them and they were enjoying their retirement.

Amabile reports that this can happen within a couple of months, but more often it’s six months, but for a couple it was much longer, ‘three years later [one] person doesn’t feel that they’ve quite got that new life structure figured out.’

It depends on the individual involved.

Going from work to retirement is a huge transition. Thinking and planning ahead for your retirement will help restructure your life in retirement. Having a plan gives direction, even if you decide to change it later, which you have the freedom to do.

Importantly, the research showed that most retirees do get to the point where they enjoy their retirement.

Part 1 Takes an overview of life restructuring and identity bridging

Part 3 looks more in-depth at identity bridging

Bruce Manners is the author of Retirement Ready? and Refusing to Retire, and founder of

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Category: Planning

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