Senescence is an irreversible withdrawal from cell proliferation that can be initiated after DNA damage-induced cell cycle arrest in G2 phase to prevent genomic instability. Senescence onset in G2 requires p53 (also known as TP53) and retinoblastoma protein (RB, also known as RB1) family tumour suppressors, but how they are regulated to convert a temporary cell cycle arrest into a permanent one remains unknown. Here, we show that a previously unrecognised balance between the cyclin-dependent kinase (CDK) inhibitor p21 and the checkpoint kinase Chk1 controls cyclin D–CDK activity during G2 arrest. In non-transformed cells, p21 activates RB in G2 by inhibiting cyclin D1 complexed with CDK2 or CDK4. The resulting G2 exit, which precedes the appearance of senescence markers, is associated with a mitotic bypass, Chk1 downregulation and reduction in the number of DNA damage foci. In p53/RB-proficient cancer cells, a compromised G2 exit correlates with sustained Chk1 activity, delayed p21 induction, untimely cyclin E1 re-expression and genome reduplication. Conversely, Chk1 depletion promotes senescence by inducing p21 binding to cyclin D1– and cyclin E1–CDK complexes and downregulating CDK6, whereas knockdown of the checkpoint kinase Chk2 enables RB phosphorylation and delays G2 exit. In conclusion, p21 and Chk2 oppose Chk1 to maintain RB activity, thus promoting the onset of senescence induced by DNA damage in G2.