Aging Options

Don’t Let Retirement Rob You of Your Identity!

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As retirement edges closer for many boomers, they’re learning what millions have discovered before: retirement can rob us of our sense of identity. It’s essential, say retirement experts, to understand this fact ahead of time and deal proactively with the consequences of identity loss in retirement.

Let’s face it, most of us in our 60s and 70s have been in the workplace for the past four or five decades. We may not think our identities are wrapped up in what we do for a living, but statistics suggest otherwise. Back in 2019, an article in the Harvard Business Review quoted research on this topic by Harvard Professor Teresa Amabile. “She says important psychological shifts take place leading up to, and during, retirement. That holds especially true for workers who identify strongly with their job and organization.”

But there are clearly ways to avoid, or at least to mitigate, the identity crisis that can accompany retirement. Just this week we came across this helpful article from Kiplinger, written by financial writer Jacob Schroeder. He helps us identify the problem of identity loss in retirement and provides four helpful ways to get yourself into a new, healthier place emotionally and mentally. Let’s take a look.

Retirement Identity Loss: “I’m Trying to Get Used to It”

Schroeder begins his article by taking us back in time to an unlikely figure with a relatable issue: former President Ulysses S. Grant, post-presidency, grappling with the challenge of readjusting to being a civilian after his years of extraordinary leadership.

In a letter to a close friend, he admitted, “I am now simply Ulysses S. Grant, and I am trying to get used to it.”

Schroeder writes, “While most of us may never truly comprehend the magnitude of transitioning from the most powerful figure in the nation to an ordinary Joe, we can all relate in some way. Changes in identity are a natural part of life’s journey. From childhood to adulthood, from being an intern to running the company, from the status of single to that of married and, sadly, widowed. And a transformation that presents a considerable challenge to many baby boomers today: the shift from worker to retiree.”

Retirement Identity Loss: Entering the “Peak 65 Zone”

While Grant’s sentiment shows us that this type of transition has been normal for many decades, Schroeder explains that we are currently in a very pivotal national moment. In fact, this year, the U.S. is in something called the “Peak 65 Zone,” named by the Retirement Income Institute at the Alliance for Lifetime Income and defined as “the largest surge of retirement age Americans turning 65 in our nation’s history.”

Every day, an estimated 11,200 Americans will turn 65—the full retirement age back when Social Security was inaugurated in 1935—which means that this transition from work to retirement will be more prevalent than ever before.

“Amid these transitions, people often experience a sense of detachment from their sense of self — an encounter known as identity loss,” Schroeder writes. “Irrespective of the degree of wealth or prestige achieved in one’s career, anyone can encounter the same sentiment as Grant did, mourning the individual they once were prior to retirement.”

Retirement Identity Loss: Preparing for an Uncertain Future

As we’re all no doubt aware, what we “do” for a living is often a very deep part of our identity and sense of self, even down to typically being the first thing we tell strangers about ourselves when introduced.

“This can complicate adapting to new situations, even ones we’ve anticipated for years,” Schroeder writes. “While identity loss is overshadowed by financial concerns like outliving our savings, it can lead to comparably negative outcomes, such as anxiety, depression, detachment and feelings of hopelessness.”

Moreover, studies show a correlation between retirees who feel strongly tied to their work roles and a diminished sense of mental well-being after retirement. “Furthermore, struggling to adjust in retirement has been linked to difficulties in establishing effective goals for maintaining and improving one’s financial well-being,” Schroeder adds.

But it doesn’t have to be this way. Schroeder provides the following strategies for helping us “embrace a new identity” and “progress toward a rewarding retirement.”

Build Retirement Identity by Staying Professionally Engaged

Though we often think of retirement as a complete separation from work and a full-time life of leisure, Schroeder reminds us that it doesn’t have to be all-or-nothing. You can continue to work in your retirement, whether in consulting roles, part-time jobs, or even beginning a new career. All of these can go a long way toward mitigating identity loss.

“Engaging in meaningful work allows you to maintain a sense of purpose and structure, preventing feelings of aimlessness that often accompany major life transitions. There are some great jobs for retirees that can fulfill different parts of your identity from your long-term career,” Schroeder writes.

Expect that your relationship with work will likely feel different when you choose it rather than feeling like you have to do it. Schroeder explains, “According to a 2014 survey, per Harvard Business Review, 80 percent of retirees who work say they are doing so because they want to, rather than because they have to. Further evidence suggests that working longer is associated with better health – specifically longer life expectancy.” 

Build Retirement Identity Through Social Interaction

Work is not the only thing that can give you a strong sense of self, of course, and Schroeder recommends really leaning into the non-work-related activities that bring you joy and meaning. “There are a variety of ways people find purpose: doing new and interesting things, volunteering, living a family-focused or faith-filled life, and even adopting a pet,” he writes.

When these activities are paired with interpersonal relationships—friends, family, or new acquaintances—and getting out of the house, they can make you feel like an active member of your community, which contributes to a stronger sense of self.

“Through continued engagement, you can discover new passions, contribute your expertise and develop a renewed identity that transcends your previous roles,” Schroeder adds.

Build Retirement Identity by Crafting Your Own Story

“Ultimately, who you are in retirement is whoever you make yourself up to be. So, use your imagination. Craft a better retirement story,” Schroeder writes.

This isn’t just a nice thought, either. Studies show that people who craft identity stories are “better able to make peace with their transitions and leave behind their old identities, expressing more positive sentiment about their current situations than those who did not craft such stories.”

Or, Schroeder says, you could take inspiration from Richard Bronson, who created the narrative that his life is a never-ending adventure, writing: “Life is not a journey to retirement.” It’s much, much more.

Build Retirement Identity Through Supportive Connections

Finally, Schroeder urges us not to travel this road alone, because “connecting with supportive friends, family members or support groups can provide a sense of belonging and help you feel understood during times of identity loss.”

The ability to talk through your feelings and experiences can be therapeutic. And Schroeder advises that those feeling more severe struggles may want to seek the help of a professional, especially early on, to build a bridge through the transitional period. “A therapist can guide you through understanding your emotions, thought patterns and beliefs, and assist in developing coping strategies,” he writes.

Schroeder concludes on a note of empathy, recognizing that it’s natural to feel nostalgic for how things used to be, but “it’s important to recognize retirement not as closure on your past, but rather as another opportunity for personal growth.”

In the words of physical fitness pioneer and mountaineer Bonnie Prudden: “You can’t turn back the clock. But you can wind it up again.”

Breaking News: Rajiv’s New Book is Here!

We have big news! The long-awaited book by Rajiv Nagaich, called Your Retirement: Dream or Disaster, has been released and is now available to the public.  As a friend of AgingOptions, we know you’ll want to get your copy and spread the word.

You’ve heard Rajiv say it repeatedly: 70 percent of retirement plans will fail. If you know someone whose retirement turned into a nightmare when they were forced into a nursing home, went broke paying for care, or became a burden to their families – and you want to make sure it doesn’t happen to you – then this book is must-read.

Through stories, examples, and personal insights, Rajiv takes us along on his journey of expanding awareness about a problem that few are willing to talk about, yet it’s one that results in millions of Americans sleepwalking their way into their worst nightmares about aging. Rajiv lays bare the shortcomings of traditional retirement planning advice, exposes the biases many professionals have about what is best for older adults, and much more.

Rajiv then offers a solution: LifePlanning, his groundbreaking approach to retirement planning. Rajiv explains the essential planning steps and, most importantly, how to develop the framework for these elements to work in concert toward your most deeply held retirement goals.

Your retirement can be the exciting and fulfilling life you’ve always wanted it to be. Start by reading and sharing Rajiv’s important new book. And remember, Age On, everyone!

(originally reported at www.kiplinger.com)

Need assistance planning for your successful retirement? Give us a call! 1.877.762.4464

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