Retirement Identity: Who am I now?

I’m looking forward to retirement but I’m also terrified about the prospect of it.

Those were the sentiments Sharon shared in seeking my counseling help in deciding what to do in her retirement. At that time, Sharon was 62 and eligible for a full retirement from her professional position with the U.S. Department of Justice. She was clear that it was time to transition from the demanding work and fully engaging lifestyle of a prosecuting attorney, but was not ready to just “retire.” Sharon wanted to do something worthwhile but had no idea of what that might be.

A few weeks after our initial meeting I happened to be sharing a seat on the commuter train into Washington, D.C., when Sharon informed me that this was to be her last day of work. She was heading in to clear out her office and say a final goodbye to colleagues with whom she had been fully engaged over of the past quarter century. I asked her if she was excited about leaving her old life and launching her new life. With tears in her eyes she said, “This is the most difficult day of my life. After today I never again will be a prosecuting attorney with the U.S. Federal Government.” Sharon, who was proud of her prestigious title and position and her many significant accomplishments, was now facing the loss of a highly valued commodity, her career identity. Such a loss can represent a dramatic change, one that often catches new retirees by surprise. Besides the financial side of retirement, most people concentrate their attention on what they are going to do next. The issue now grabbing Sharon was who was she going to be next.

Most of us become settled in our routines and develop a sense of identity associated with our job titles and the nature of our responsibilities and professional accomplishments. When facing retirement, however, we leave behind the psychological comfort of a known routine and the ego-based esteem associated with an occupational identity. The emotional impact of that change is magnified if our position has provided us with prestige and self-esteem. It can be frightening prospect to face the combined loss of a salary-based lifestyle, life-structuring employment routine, and an achievement-oriented career identity. Of the three of these, identity is often the least obvious but psychologically the most important in terms of wellbeing.

If we don’t feel good about who we are, what’s the likelihood of experiencing a joy-filled life? It would be challenging to enjoy the good life without the benefit of sufficient financial resources but, in itself, money does not make one happy. In fact, an obsessive preoccupation with money can actually make one unhappy. It’s the quality of the life we are living, what we do with it, and how we feel about it that determines ultimate happiness. Because of the intimate connection between a positive identity and psychological health and happiness, it is as important to factor in the question of who you will be in senior-life as what you will do.

Sharon recognized that the kinds of activities she would commit herself to in retirement needed to replace the psychic hole created from leaving her career identity behind. To do that, she undertook three identity-renewing activities:

  • Drawing upon professional background and interests, she volunteered her legal expertise to help indigent individuals facing legal problems.
  • She ran for local office in her community to pursue a heartfelt political agenda.
  • She became even more of a benevolent presence, as a nurturing aunt, to her numerous nieces and nephews, (Sharon was single and had no children of her own)

What will you do and who will you be in retirement? For help with these significant issues in re-inventing your life in retirement, see the list of Retirement Planning References at:


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