Next Avenue recently published an article by Bart Astor, a writer specializing in life transitions, titled “When will you be ready to call it quits?” After talking to numerous retirees, Astor concluded that the following factors played into their decisions to leave the workforce:
- a milestone such as a significant birthday or a work anniversary
- dissatisfaction with the direction taken by the employer or profession; unwillingness to adapt to workplace changes
- health concerns
- a feeling that life is short
Certainly other factors– family needs, lack of passion in the work, or desire for change–can be important as well. I was interested in one factor that Astor added to those listed above: identity. He explained: “That is, when you no longer want, or need, to identify yourself as, say, a teacher, manager, director or writer — even if the job title carries some prestige.”
This giving up our identities can be quite a barrier to retirement. It’s not just a matter of losing status by giving up titles, perks, or authority (though for some of us that factors in). It’s the prospect of losing who we are, how we’ve defined ourselves through the years. That potential loss can be frightening. I recently had a conversation with another psychologist who recently turned 70 and is thinking of not renewing his license to practice when it next expires. Being able to think of himself as a licensed psychologist has been quite important to his self-concept and it’s hard for him to give that up. Here’s the interesting thing about him: he has been disabled for twenty years and hasn’t been practicing psychology for that long. At first he had hopes he would recover from his medical problems and be able to practice again, but he gave up on that dream about ten years ago. Despite being permanently sidelined, he’s repeatedly renewed his license to practice, just because it’s been too hard for him to give up that aspect of his identity.
My work identity is like a tent stake holding my sense of self in place. I am likely to resist pulling up that stake unless there is something else attaching me to the ground. What other ways can we be grounded when we transition to retirement? The answer is probably different for each of us. I would like to suggest that we think about this question by looking about our past, present, and future identities. Here are three questions to help with that process:
- What aspects of my past identity still can serve a stabilizing function?
Our life stories are a rich source of insight into who we have been through the decades. What beliefs have I always returned to? What life goals have been a persistent source of direction? What have been my lifelong interests and passions? Reconnecting with these aspects of ourselves can ground us during times of change.
- What aspects of my identity in the present can I rely on going forward?
We are all much more than our careers, and it’s useful to think of aspects of our present lives that transcend work. What relationships matter to me? What gives direction to the time I am away from the workplace? What or who do I put my faith in? What sustains me; what gives me the energy to go on in the face of difficulties? In all likelihood, all these things will still be with us after we retire.
- What aspects of my future identity can ground me as I go through this transition?
We each have a future self–a person we imagine we will be one day. Some of us can picture that person clearly, while for others the image is quite blurred. It is useful to give some thought about who we envision being once the retirement transition is behind us. What will our days be like? Where will we spend our time, and with whom? What will give us satisfaction, what challenges will we face, what will be our source of hope? That future self has made the transition out of the workplace and has an identity no longer dependent on earning an income. Knowing that such a person awaits us gives us the courage to go in search of him or her. Best wishes as you explore your past, current, and future selves!
I retired last May, and have found satisfaction in letting the work self go drifting off. I have always known that my work persona wasn’t “me”. I realize that how I define myself is manufactured. Letting that go and letting the currents take me where they will is a new and exciting adventure. I’ve made a lot of plans in my life, and of course none of them went exactly as planned and my life was better for it. “Going with the flow (with my hands still on the wheel) is truly liberating. I can only imagine how life might have been different if I had let that happen earlier in life.
You’ve handled the transition really well! You must have had a pretty good sense of who you were outside of work to be able to let go of the work persona so easily. Enjoy the adventure!