identity in retirement

Finding Identity in Retirement

How are you doing, really?

Do you know someone who has floundered when they walked away from work?  Think of that person you know whose identity was tied up in the ‘uniform’ that they wore for so many years; A suit and tie or the company colors.  They identified closely with their role on a team or their status among peers.  They found validation in the recognitions and promotions that came with their climb up the corporate ladder.  Through it all, these people set a goal to retire and in many cases were very successful in building financial security for their family. Then retirement came and they realized that their goal to save enough didn’t solve the biggest question in retirement: Who am I now?

Around this time of year, I begin to think about goals. The goals that I set for this year and the ones I want to achieve next year.  Personal and professional, these goals are the incremental steps that I want to take to become better at my job and in my personal and professional life.  Setting goals to get just a little bit better year after year can compound our growth as people over time…to a point. Sometimes, though, goal setting isn’t enough.  Sometimes a transformation is what we need and a growth framework based on goals isn’t sufficient for us to re-imagine who we are and what we can become.  Anyone who has stepped into retirement having only reached financial goals knows this well.  If retirement comes suddenly, or if you have not prepared beyond having enough money, there are some things you should consider.

A friend once described a powerful scene to me about the identity we find through work.  He had been the CEO of a prominent local business for decades and, after some soul-searching, decided he had the financial means and desire to walk away and phase into retirement.

A year later, he attended one of the largest charitable events in our community and walked into a room filled with a thousand familiar faces.  Except this time, instead of being placed at the head table with his other CEO friends, his table was in the back of the room.  He wasn’t with his peers. In fact, he was no longer sure of who his peers were.  Worse yet, there was no going back.

This new role as a former CEO was now his identity in retirement and yet he was a stranger to himself.  As he told me this weeks later, it was obvious to me that he had accomplished his goal of financial security but had underestimated how much his identity was connected to his work.

If you are retired, you may know this feeling.  If you are approaching retirement, you may have a sneaking suspicion about whether you will find purpose beyond your working years. You may have met all of your savings goals but then what? The reality is that saving and investing are the things you do while you work.  Figuring out who you are at this new stage of life is the work.  Here are some ways to jump-start your transformation into finding a purposeful identity in retirement:

  • Feed Your Head: Start building awareness of all the non-financial challenges and opportunities that come post-work.  Books and podcasts abound on these topics.  NO one voice is right for everyone but finding someone with a perspective that speaks to you is imperative.
  • Power of Partnership: Involve your spouse or significant other in your transformation but also acknowledge that they may be doing the same.  Reading some of the same sources can help give you a common language to talk through your individual progress as well as your evolution as a couple.
  • Build the Team: Many retirees struggle with the isolation that comes from no longer having the social aspect of work in the course of their day. If you have a circle of friends, make sure there are a number of them who you can ask “How are you doing, really?” And know that they will ask the same of you.  Sharing your common experiences will help you realize that you are not alone in the retirement transition.

Finally: Start early.  Waiting until the first day of not working to think about your new identity in retirement might squander your best, healthiest years in the search. It takes time and there are resources to help guide you but the first step must be yours.  Recognize the limits of your retirement goals and acknowledge that there is a best version of your retired self that is worth cultivating.

Is retirement on your mind? You may find the following to be helpful: