Purpose: The purpose of this paper is to examine the significance of the work-to-retirement transition for academic staff from a life course perspective and the manner in which individuals have managed the transition. Design/methodology/approach: In total, 32 semi-structured interviews were conducted with academic staff from ten Universities in England. The data are analysed using matrix analysis. Findings: Marked differences in the experience of the work-to-retirement transition were found and five groups are identified which characterise the significance of retirement. Clean Breakers view retirement as a welcome release from work. Opportunists and Continuing Scholars use retirement to re-negotiate the employment relationship. The Reluctant consider retirement as a loss of a valued source of identity and the Avoiders are undecided about retirement plans. Research limitations/implications: The focus of the study is at the individual level. A more complete understanding of retirement decisions would encompass organisational approaches to retirement issues. Practical implications: There are practical implications for academics approaching retirement. Not all academics wish to continue to engage in academic work in retirement. For those who do, opportunities are predominantly available to staff with stronger social and professional capital. Continued engagement necessitates personal adaptability and tolerance to ambiguity. Staff who are planning their careers might build such factors into retirement planning. Social implications: Organisations need to rethink their responsibilities in managing retirement processes as they face an increasing variety of retirement expectations in the workforce. Given the unfolding de-institutionalisation of retirement, both individuals and organisations need to re-negotiate their respective roles. Originality/value: The paper characterises the diversity of modes of experiencing retirement by academic staff, highlighting differences between the groups.