Identity, Purpose, and Belonging in Retirement

Older workers preparing for retirement (or those, like me, part way through the process)  deal not only with logistics and practical questions, but also with questions regarding how to live our lives. Three sets of issues that retirees face–issues of identity, purpose, and belonging–all have to do with what sort of life is most fulfilling and what kind of people should we be. Let’s take a look at each of these three, thinking especially about how these choices reveal our values:

On a recent trip to Israel. Should I travel more?

On a recent trip to Israel. Should I travel more?


When we leave the workplace, we leave behind a major source of identity. For years we’ve been teachers or accountants or executives, but we aren’t that anymore, so what are we now? We’re told we can reinvent ourselves, meaning that we can choose who we will become. But what sort of person should I become? Should I try to cultivate wisdom through reading or attending lectures? Should I develop my aesthetic side by going to concerts or art museums? Should I foster my creativity by taking up painting or writing? Should I expand my horizons through travel? Should I focus on challenges such as climbing a mountain or running a marathon? Should I become more spiritual, praying, meditating, or participating in religious ritual? Should I focus on what gives me maximal pleasure, whether that be as a gourmand, a gambler, or a golfer? Whatever direction I take will define my new identity. Choosing one direction over another is a decision as to the best person for me to be.


When we leave the workplace, we also lose the sense of purpose that our jobs provided for us. We’re told we should develop a new purpose. Sure, establishing a new identity gives  some sense of purpose, but most retirees looking for a new purpose are looking for more than an identity; they are looking for a way of making a difference in the world. Should I try to help the less fortunate in society, volunteering in a soup kitchen or working with the homeless? Should I try to help the next generation by tutoring schoolchildren or caring for my grandchildren? Should I become an advocate for a cause–immigration reform, healthcare reform, criminal justice reform, or any among dozens of other issues that affect human well-being? Should I take a job that would again give me a work-related purpose? Should I run for public office?  Whatever I choose to do, I’m “voting with my feet” regarding what is worth doing. I’m making a choice as to what constitutes a meaningful and valuable purpose.


Our workplaces gave most of us not only a purpose but a sense of belonging. We interacted with co-workers on a daily basis; some of them became friends, and some even seemed like family. Our work also determined in large part where we lived; many of us moved far from where we would have lived otherwise because of work. When we retire, we must again think about where we belong. In part, that is a question of where to live. Should we move closer to aging parents or grown children and grandchildren? Should we move back near our childhood home? Or should we live in a place providing opportunities to form new relationships–a resort town, for example, or a retirement community? Wherever we live, we also have to decide with whom we’ll spend the bulk of our time. With family members? With friends, whether old or new? At church, synagogue, or temple? With others who share some interest–musicians, say, or motorcycle enthusiasts or oenophiles? As with identity and purpose, deciding where to live and with whom to spend time reflects our values. In making the choice, we are selecting certain people as the ones most worth our time.

Who should I become? What should be my purpose? With whom do I belong? When we plan our post-retirement lives, we are revealing our values. We are showing what sort of life we think is worth living. These are serious choices, ones that no one else can make for us. Best wishes in determining your new identity, purpose, and belonging!

About Bob Ritzema

I am a fourth-generation American of Dutch ancestry and am trained as a clinical psychologist. In 2012, I retired from Methodist University in North Carolina to return to . Michigan to help family, and, in 2023, I started again with a move to Milwaukee to be near my children. I maintain a part-time therapy practice. I can be reached at
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4 Responses to Identity, Purpose, and Belonging in Retirement

  1. Your summary of three big tasks in retirement is perhaps alarming to anyone who has associated all three in their career or paid employment. This article is best contemplated at around 40 years of age, to allow time for preparation. Thank you for your wisdom.

    • bobritzema says:

      It is daunting to think about these big issues. I think you’re right; it’s best to start thinking about them well before we retire. That idea fits with the notion that people who plan for retirement usually adjust better and are happier than those who give their retirement little thought. Thanks for your comment.

  2. Yet I don’t blame those who opt for denial: we’re all different. Happy holidays!

    • bobritzema says:

      Thanks; may your holidays be happy as well. I don’t mind using denial myself at times; maybe we all do, but use it for different things.

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