Retired – Who Am I Now?

How retirement changes your identity? How ending your work career affects your sense of self? Who am I now?  

Today, given the increase in life expectancy - 20 years for a 65-year-old man - the prospect of staying healthy and active improves as we enter this "new phase of life". As this expanded longevity did not exist a generation ago, we do not have an established roadmap on how to live this period of life with greater freedom and brio.

As a result, anyone approaching the age of sixty should begin to reflect and anticipate entering the next phase of their productive life to minimize periods of suffering and wasted time. Consider the example of Joe.

While Joe had given little thought to his upcoming retirement, he was looking forward to it. As a senior executive, Joe had always been highly committed to his organization and had significantly contributed to its success. Exhausted by all the years of constant pressure from his work, he was eager to make the leap to the next stage of his life and decided to retire. Unlike some of his colleagues, he was lucky enough not to have been "prematurely" sidelined in favor of the next generation. Yet, when he retired, things did not turn out as he had hoped. Frequent trips around the world and various recreational pursuits only brought him limited satisfaction. He also missed the daily e-mails, phone calls and conversations with his colleagues. Now he was no longer at the center of the action. Deep down he felt lost.

I have met many Joe's who have had successful careers and have often struggled to accept their situation and deal with their change in status.

For those, like Joe, who strongly identified with their work - "work is who we are" - being retired can leave them feeling like nobodies. The question is not only how you are going to spend your time, but also, how you are going to replace the sense of purpose and belonging that work once provided?

Like facing an “empty nest” or divorce or death, retirement involves an emotionally painful separation, where the key challenge is dealing with grief. Emotionally, our place in society is undergoing a monumental change, as is our identity. We are confronted with the reality of losing social influence and financial power. When sources of socialization (peers, work-related friends), financial status and self-esteem are disrupted, we experience feelings of isolation and grief that distort the way we perceive ourselves. Retirement untethers us from how we see/think about ourselves in a new fundamental way. Who am I now, and what will give structure and purpose to my days?

Retirement is less a life event than a life transition. The transition to retirement represents a loss of continuity in the well-established work/life-structure that has served as a major anchor for a person's identity. The impact of retirement on a person's identity is all the more traumatic when employment was its primary or sole source.

A new study offers very helpful insights into how to handle this life transition more effectively. (ref: Researchers at Harvard Business School, Questrom School of Business, Bentley University and MIT Sloan School of Management interviewed 120 professionals from 3 different companies across the U.S. In the study they focused on mental and emotional tolls that retirement brings. They found that retirees go through two main processes 1) Life Restructuring 2) Identity Bridging

1) Life Restructuring

The transition to retirement and the entry into this "new phase of life" requires a major adjustment for any future retiree to offset the loss of the work/life-structure with a new "retirement/life-structure".

During our time as workers, we lived as "tenants" of a work/life-structure that our organizations had created for us. Our main activities were scheduled from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., Monday to Friday - and we organized our weekends around this time. Individual life context, such as place of residence and major relationships, were defined for us.

The task of building a "retirement/life-structure" to replace the loss of a work/life-structure is a challenge for any retiree - especially as it occurs at a time when energy and motivation levels are declining. There is a “gap” of 40-50 hours per week previously devoted to work that must now be compensated by new activities. It may be an easier transition for people whose identity is composed of multiple roles, e.g. a worker, father, husband, soccer coach, ... to bridge this time gap and build a “retirement/life-structure" leading to a new sense of fulfillment,

There are four developmental tasks we have to go through in the transition to building this new "retirement/life-structure":

  • Make the decision to retire
  • Detach ourselves from work
  • Manage the initial “euphoric” phase
  • Deal with the adjustments to a new lifestyle and consolidate the new “retirement/life- structure”

2) Identity Bridging

Creating and engaging in "Identity Bridging" is essential for the "work is who we are" people. Those whose "mental space" was dominated by their fierce ambition to climb the corporate ladder and meet the limitless expectations of their organization - all at the expense of developing other parts of themselves.

Rebuilding a life primarily centered around leisure and "recreational activities" is unlikely to be sufficient to provide these individuals with a sense of purpose, belonging and fulfillment over an expectable 20-year period of reasonably good health.

It is clear that they will need to broaden certain aspects of their identity, perhaps through the acquisition of "non-professional" components such as new passions or sports.  They might also consider reactivating dormant elements of their identity by re-engaging "atrophied" parts of themselves abandoned years ago, such as art. Finally, they may want to strengthen/consolidate a part of their identity by deepening their engagement with a particular person, such as their spouse.

As we approach or pass the 60-65-year mark, we have the opportunity to (re)explore "who am I now? What kind of (work), stimulation, purpose or direction do I want now? We have time to discover, to (re)evaluate our "true self" in search of a meaningful engagement in life. One could call it "self-actualization".  Traditions may have guided our past choices…we may have been raised to conform to what was not us - molded into someone who was not our “true self”. We now get the opportunity to rethink what we really need and value at this stage of our lives and to "reset our priorities". I sincerely believe in the benefits of remaining fully engaged in a productive life – focusing only on what is essential to lead a fulfilling life.

We literally have limitless opportunities to explore new ways to reinvent ourselves. We have financial and human resources we can draw upon, as well as a lifetime of insights and know-how about how the world works.

Whether you're retired, soon to be retired or even just starting your career, take a piece of paper and write down your goals for the future and how you're going to organize your dream life. It's a very useful exercise that you can never start too early.

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