Rebuilding Your Identity After Retirement

Who are you?  It is a simple question but the answers can be complex .  Yet often when you are working you just use your job title as a proxy of an answer.  So for me the answer was: I’m an engineer.

Of course it is more complicated than that and when you look at all the roles you have in your life you start to get an idea of what your identity is.  For example, yes I’m an engineer but I’m also a father, a husband, an uncle, a son, a brother, a bibliophile, a brewer of wine and beer, a gamer (video, board and role playing games), an author, a blogger,  a friend, a life long learner, a cook, a volunteer and so on.  All of these things combined are your identity and each of them contribute to it.

Yet for a person entering retirement there is a big shift that occurs with your identity.  You have likely made your work-related identity one of your key roles that defines you and after you retire that role becomes less relevant.  And here is the trick of having a successful retirement: you need to build a new role of retiree and let your previous work role diminish.

In short this is why many retirees, men specifically, have issues with retirement.  We are more often heavily identified by our work role and when we lose that role we feel adrift without another role to help support us as we slowly build up the retiree role.  And when you are feeling a lose of identity you can feel worthless, be irritable, wonder about what you values and question who you are.  If you stay in this state for a period of time it is entirely possible to slide into feeling depressed.

I didn’t personally suffer too much with my identity when I retired as I have been slowly letting my role related to work diminish leading up to retirement for close to a year.   I even started introducing my self differently by saying I work as an engineer but I’m passionate about writing. That way when I left work for the last time I was already started on the process of letting go of my old work role and could then focus more on building up my other roles.

Related to that is why I often point out the need for a focus or passion hobby or interest in retirement.  You need to know what matters to you and do something that will make you feel needed.  That will help you build up that role into a more dominate part of your identify and contribute to you building out your retiree identity.  You should also consider leaning more on your other roles in your life as you make this transition for work role to retiree role.  So yes, spend more time with friends and your family (if you like them), help out in your community, and get more into your existing hobbies.  For example, find a club about one of your hobbies and join it (or at the very least try it out).

A note of caution.  This process can take a LONG time to complete and if you don’t know what you want to focus on in your retirement you might have a prolonged period of trying out various interests.  It can be easy to say to yourself: what’s the point?  After trying idea number five but don’t give in and keep trying as you will find something in the long run.  The answer might not be just one big thing but rather several smaller things together that works for you.  So perhaps your build your retiree identity with parts of being a brewer, writer and friend rather than just one dominate item.

So have you ever had issues with your identity for example during a career change or after a move?  If so, how did you get pass it?  Please share any other tips you have found that worked for you.

7 thoughts on “Rebuilding Your Identity After Retirement”

  1. I have been retired three years and find that side gigging as a consultant is a lot of fun even though I don’t need the income it generates. I only work about a day a week but I still see many of the same people I did when I worked full-time, still get to travel for work and still get my addiction to high tech toys paid for with opm. I have a bunch of recreational hobbies, volunteer work and I blog, but those would not be enough without the paid work to keep me content.

  2. Thanks for calling this out Tim! I have to admit that I sometimes feel awkward when people ask ‘what do you do?’ and find I respond with ‘Well, I used to be…’ as though I’m justifying myself. I have yet to move past the hidden ‘shame’ and ‘guilt’ feelings of leaving my burnout office job to be partially retired and do physical work. I’ve had a couple of ‘comments’ thrown my way seeing as my wife still works full time (thankfully at something she enjoys). I try not to feel resentful about this, and remind myself that I am still working (albeit less hours for less pay), plus doing the overwhelming majority of domestic/family chores and home renos/maintenance. My wife reminds me that our arrangement benefits her greatly as well, and that’s what really matters.
    And I think that’s the key – we need to move past societal conceptions of ‘what we do’ and take pride in ‘who we are,’ at our core, and the value we give to those closest to us.

  3. I worked as a benefits lawyer until I retired at age 54. Then I developed a lucrative encore career as a personal finance writer. By age 67 I was intentionally down to one client and fully retired at age 68. By then I was totally comfortable to describe my status as retired. I think that phasing into retirement really worked for me.

  4. If I am asked what I do, I proudly answer, “I’m retired.” I have proudly answered that for the last 10 years, following my retirement from a 23-year career. If I am asked what I did during my career, I will answer truthfully.

    I worked part-time for 7 years prior to my full retirement. It was in those 7 years where I regained control of my personal life, resurrecting some dormant hobbies and starting some volunteer work. So, going from working part-time to full retirement wasn’t a big change. It did allow me to expand n my existing hobbies and do them without the frequent scheduling conflicts between doing them and my 2 or 3 days of part-time work.

  5. Thanks for sharing your perspective. I’m currently wrestling with this idea myself while on a year-long mini-retirement in USA (from Australia). I am doing a few entry-level event staffing jobs along the way to provide some ‘fun money’, meet people and typically get free entry to these festivals. In honesty, I’m feeling the emotional struggle with earning a lot less than I’m used to in my main career, while also feeling odd about doing roles far below my skill-set. Feeling that these odd jobs don’t necessarily align with an identity I’d be proud of, it has been challenging to determine how I describe myself this year. The struggle is real!

  6. At 47 I took a buy out as a General Manager for a big company, the same month you retired, at about 14 of the 24 months into my severance, I discovered your blog and have been reading it from the beginning. I discovered that although I never realized it, I inadvertently can retire.

    Realizing this was huge, and liberating. I have taken on some Reno jobs, but identity, perception issues, my purpose and potential depression remain huge concerns. The extra time I have forces it to be front and center in my thoughts, which isn’t always good.

    Keep on providing your insight, it’s great therapy!

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