How relationships ease the transition into retirement.

Updated: Mar 3, 2019

How will I know when it’s time to retire? And what will I do with myself if I’m not going to work? In an ongoing study of 83 individuals who are either on the brink of or a few years into retirement from a full-time career, my colleagues and I have discovered that people vary widely in how they make the decision to retire, and how they restructure their lives after letting go of a strong work identity.* As in every major life transition, a person’s network of relationships may provide support that helps him or her define next steps that are self-enhancing and aligned with core values—or it may prove inadequate to foster learning and growth. People’s networks vary considerably in the quality of connections they have, the diversity in perspectives that individuals in their network hold, and how well these relationships align with what they need at the time of transition.


Are there particular colleagues, friends, or family members who have the capability and interest in supporting you in this way? Would it be helpful to initiate new relationships for this purpose, or to deepen and expand ones already in your network? We know that the trust, empathy, and deep listening that characterize high quality relationships provide support for personal reflection on significant questions that inevitably come up at this stage of life. In sharing one’s current experiences both at work and outside of work, and how these contribute to wellbeing or create persistent stress, people can more readily discern next right actions. One person noted how he didn’t realize how stressful his work situation had become in the last year, until he talked with a close friend about it and realized that the positive experiences he regularly had at work had been diminished by recent changes in his work situation.


When people consider when to retire, they often experience a mix of anticipation, excitement, worry and dread as they think about how they will spend their time when work is no longer such a big part of their daily life. Here, the opportunity to actively listen to those who have recently made the move away from full time work, can be a source of insight regarding how best to move forward. And, in many instances, if you have a high quality connection with your spouse, he or she can be a tremendous source of wisdom, coaching, and empathy as well. As we know well, individuals benefit from multiple high quality connections when they face big life/career challenges. This is the case for navigating the retirement transition, too.


*For more information, and the names of my collaborators, take a look at my Wall Street Journal article from November 2018 and this HBS Working Knowledge article from September 2018.