Retirement: The revision of your identity

Last evening a friend came for dinner; Sophie retired as of January 1st. Though she beamed when she made the announcement, after a glass of wine, she asked me, "What do you do?"

My activity report probably sounded prosaic: some writing, a good deal of reading, walking, the gym, housekeeping, seeing friends and family. The occasional exhibit or concert, the eternal French classes. I recently learned how to make lipstick.

I could see that she thought, That's it? If one's work life has included a front-row pew at the Shrine of Productivity, if one's performance has been measured by deals or bonuses or awards, suddenly there is neither the focus of goals nor the glow of achieving them. Sophie had gone, from one day to the next, from intense, draining work to leisure, and the shift had caught her by surprise.

A productive person who retires thinks she should replace work with other engrossing activities, from Day One. She forgets that at twenty or twenty-five she was sorting out her work preferences. That's when she learned she is happiest working in a team, or hates offices, or is more entrepreneurial than she thought. She may have chosen an occupation, only to find years of training only confirm what she had hoped to ignore: she's just not engaged by law, or the family business, or teaching biology.

Forty years later, we don't permit ourselves that re-assessment when we leave work. Some become anxious, some stick with jobs they don't enjoy because they wonder what else to do. (And some like their work so much that they simply sidestep the whole concept.)

There's concern about boredom. As I used to tell my sons when they were around nine and would sometimes whine, "I'm bored", "If you're bored, it's because you are boring."

At sixty-plus, no one is going to spread Legos on the floor for you; you have to go out and sample things. You can still learn practically anything, from programming to t'ai chi, and you'll be the better for it—but you have to go back to being a beginner. I always wanted to know how to string pearls and I have yards of bloodstained thread to prove that it is harder than it looks.

And it takes time to shed the deep wiring of being the one who Gets It Done. I still have a visceral sense of tension on Sunday evenings, as if my nervous system is still gearing up for the week; I dream about my work—not quite nightmares, but the level below, where things are not going well and it is my fault.

It is only in the past year, after five years of retirement, that my brain is starting to realize, You don't have that stress anymore.

So I recognized that slightly stunned look Sophie had, that tentative sense of excitement mixed with  honest worry. Love and work, we have long been told, are the cornerstones of life. Without work of the paid-employment sort, the identity wobbles, the ego starts to question self-worth and competence.

I haven't left all aspects of my work identity behind. My professional writing background morphed into blogging. When I worked part time for six months of last year, I saw that I had a lot more "general" left in me than "grunt". I tried to take orders graciously and present ideas as "suggestions", which Le Duc predicted that would be out of character, and he was right. You can take the woman out of the corner office, but...

There is no one left to lead but myself, no one to whom I must answer, and no one telling me how valuable I am to the enterprise. I don't miss that validation, but realize I am responsible for finding meaning, and that is what is dawning on Sophie.

So, back to the mindset at twenty: What calls? What could I be?

Perhaps it is finally making a better habitat for her beloved birds, perhaps it is organizing self-care classes for women in shelters (Sophie was an aesthetician), perhaps it's attending every interesting lecture at the Blue Met Literary Festival, after years of only being able to get to one.

You carry your work history into retirement, and some of hums away in the background. But an interesting thing happened to me in December: I lost decades of work I'd stored digitally, due to a Bermuda Triangle of IT issues. At first I panicked and considered expensive data recovery services, but then I realized, It's the past. One of my colleagues marvelled at my equanimity. "The sand covers your footprints pretty fast", I replied.

And as long as I can keep making new footprints, on new paths, there is no regret.


Very relevant to me at the moment. I was laid off in September just shy of my 63rd birthday and the pkg. I received meant that I cannot work again until the summer. I had planned on working until 68 - mainly because of finances (single female, never had high paying jobs, living in an expensive city, some debt.) so it hit me in a couple of different ways. It has also left me a bit in limbo - but with time to think.
I am lucky enough to have access to an Outplacement Firm (don't you love the phrasing) - and they have given me some good ideas. I plan on working part-time for the next few years - either a few days a week or a serious of contract jobs - at least that's what I'm hoping to find. Ideally gradually easing off - going to 4 days a week and then 3 - before finally retiring had been my plan and having spoken with friends, I think this is a great way to transition, if it's feasible.
In the meantime I've been trying to seek out all those things that are available to do for either free - or at low cost - and I've actually found quite a few things - even in an expensive city like Toronto. I also have a membership to the Art Gallery of Ontario and plan on getting one for the Royal Ontario Museum (although if money is tight then each has free evenings) - I also keep up a theatre membership with a group of friends so that we get 7 major shows a year for $200 (the cheapest seats but we still see and hear everything). I have started Chair-Yoga classes (for those with mobility issues and it's pay what you can) and I take a language class once a week - I think it's important to have a variety of things to do. I'm also planning on visiting a number of different churches for Sunday services over the next few weeks - I was raised within 3 different denominations as a child so I think it will be interesting to return as an adult and really assess what I hear - I may end up joining or I may not.
I don't think I've had an issue of self-worth as I had let that go a few years ago as far as it related to work - I finally reached the point where I could say "Work is what I do to pay the bills - it's not who I am as a person". I have had issues with that Protestant Work Ethic - I feel guilty about "wasting" time - and have found being a bit lazy difficult - although it's getting easier. I think if I was to win a wee bit on the lottery so that I didn't have to return to work that I could now adjust rather well.
I've had this discussion with friends and generally speaking found the following:
.Most seem to enjoy part-time work, at least for a few years
.Women seem to adjust better than men, they seem to have more interests/hobbies & more friends to turn to
.It's important to have some structure to your week
.Yes, it's nice to have extra money and be able to travel but even if finances are strained there is still a lot out there to do and to enjoy.

Thank you for yet another thought provoking post!
Duchesse said…
Margie: Since that was my city too for 30 years, I know what you mean, If you are in a field where contract work is posted through job boards or recruiters, you can do well that way. (Prospecting for contract work on your own, as many people I know there have found, is an entirely different game.) Sounds like a good plan. Outplacement firms have seen so many cases like yours.

The two major expense categories for retirees (in Canada) are housing and transportation. Other than necessities like food and utilities, many other budget categories can be managed by, as you point out, scouting for free events or PWYC performances, or by activities like co-operative dinners, which are lots of fun but not costly.

As for travel, while I fully acknowledge the wonders of seeing the world, travel is a form of consumption. Many will sacrifice to do it, but other people look at the cost, and figure they can do a lot more in their own location, or nearby.

LauraH said…
Love the idea of the sand covering the footprints. I was never corner office in any way, much lower level, but still goal oriented and lots of that good old Protestant work ethic. Fortunately, I was able to job share the last 3-4 years of my working life which made the transition very smooth and I developed a very keen love of gardening which has been my retirement mainstay.

After 6 years of retirement, the winters have become a bit of a concern, can't seem to find the right mix as winter sports are not my thing. The cold weather also de-motivates me (is that a word? oh well). And of course it's fatally easy to while away major time online! Writing this, I see that I need to push forward with my learn-to-make-beaded-jewellery idea which has fallen by the wayside.

Agree that structure is important. Regular stretching/pilates/ etc. classes provide some of that and get me outside the house. I also spend time lunching with friends and am very involved with my nephew, an unexpected bonus at this time of my life.

In many ways this is a wonderful time of life for me just wish my late husband was here to share in it and carry out all the plans we made. It can be lonely.
materfamilias said…
As was somewhat the case with you, the beginning of this transition to retired life was much taken up with the busy-ness of moving, for me, and now the nesting itself. I've always had so much that I wanted more free time to do, and I'm enjoying that, but there is definitely a huge adjustment in terms of my identity -- both for/to myself and my identity as others see me. This either coincides with, or perhaps has caused, an overall assessment of the worth of my.....well, on the most insistently contemplative of days, of my life. There are days when being able to concentrate on knitting cables is a satisfying joy, and there are others when I think, "Is this it? Am I finally just like my Grandma, sitting on a couch doing needlework?" (Ignoring, as happens on the dire days, all the richer reality of my life). Because, of course, retirement is also bound up with aging, and there's something about the role of the old woman. . . . but that's another topic for another day, . . .
All of which is to say, this is a very relevant post for me, and good to remember this is shared territory and it's absolutely okay to feel at least ambivalent about what is really quite a lovely privilege most of the time.
Jean Shaw said…
I've been doing contract work (aka freelancing) for a number of years and planned to continue. But, at 61, I have just thrown my hat into the ring for a full-time position. If nothing comes of it, I'll continue with the freelancing.

And in an echo of your posts on uneven aging, the person who is leaving the job is about to turn 63 and had hoped to continue full-time work until she was 65, but her husband is not well. She told me that she felt she needed to spend time with him now, not in 2 years.
angiemanzi said…
I love this post. I am approaching that stage of my life, maybe by year end. I also have that exciting "I cannot wait for the new chapter" sense that seems to be colliding with the "WTF am I going to do" sense that seems to be what your friend is feeling. I feel that I am leaning more towards feeling excited. I love the reference to sand and footprints. I have worked in finance for all but two years of my working life since graduation from University (with Masters Degree) and I have finally reached the stage, and am comfortable with the decision, that, yes, money will continue to change hands long after my retirement--sand covers the footprints, indeed. I think that realization was the first plateau, and I reached it and moved on from it pretty easily. So I am more ready to let go, but I can truly empathize with your friend. Thank you again for the post.
Retirement was not a difficult shift for me as I have 3 grandchildren, an elderly Mother to keep tabs on, a home and garden to tend to and a husband who is still very active at his architectural firm. My hobbies are knitting, reading, playing bridge and I have recently joined a gym. The club where I play bridge offers a wide variety of activities and courses where I took French lessons, Mah Jong and I have volunteered for some special events and I have been fortunate to make some new friends.
Boredom is not at all on my radar...I am trying to find time in my week for a regular volunteer job opportunity but my days are full...and I never dreamt that retirement could be so full of pleasant activities...I thought it would be quiet and lonely...I am very happy to report its completely the opposite.
You know what they say...retirees never get a day off!
Madame Là-bas said…
I've passed the 5-year mark of retirement now (and my 65th birthday) and I see this as Phase 2 of retirement. I've spent that 5 years trying new things, "living my dreams", and assessing my life. Like you, I realize that I don't like to take direction, am full of
"better ideas" and get bored quite easily. Phase 2 means committing to those volunteer opportunities that I enjoy (leading seniors'
book club, language and literacy in Mexico) and dropping those that just don't suit me. As my husband and I have very different interests, I have reconciled myself to the fact that we're not going to be one of those "Freedom 55+" retirement couples. Friends and community will play a more important role in my life than in the lives of others with different marital relationships or with grandchildren.
We do need to assess our situations in Early Retirement so that we can navigate the transitions of uneven ageing, loss of parents and partners, physical and economic limitations. You have been discussing some really relevant topics and I appreciate the opportunity to exchange ideas and feelings.
Lynn said…
I'm trying to decide whether to retire and leave academic life. One minute I'm excited and the next I'm worried that I will miss my students if not a great deal of the rest of it. Much of my self image has been tied to my work, so ideas to separate the two are welcome.
Melissa said…
I retired from paid work to become a stay at home Mum. Once the kids went to school, I managed to find plenty of wonderful things to keep me happily occupied. I joined a golf club and played twice a week. I started a diploma of visual art spread part time over 5 years and supplement subsequently by workshops in botanical art and art groups.I joined the Embroiderers Guild.

The thing that has given me greatest meaning and pleasure however is joining my local Rotary Club. Last year I was the President which a huge year for me, but we accomplished so many wonderful things. We were able to rebuild two kindergartens that were destroyed in Fiji and protect their water supply with a spring box. We are hoping to build a new kindergarten each year on other remote Fijian islands which will give them their first access to ANY education. We hosted an exchange student from Brazil. We put on a Jazz Black tie Ball, a Christmas market for homemade, home grown, hand produced goods, we put on a Super heroes dance and auction to raise money for a local toddler with leukemia, several sausage sizzles to support community events and much more. Being part of the community and giving back, and making a difference, gives your life so much meaning.
Mary said…
A timely post as I will likely retire this summer or early fall at almost 67. I am not too worried about retirement, as I am content to leave behind a 100 mile commute, as well as a workplace that once was a joyful place of collaboration but is now simply a contentious environment. I will not miss working as it has been a source of ever-increasing stress these past few years. But I do appreciate your comment about evaluating this change--as indeed one must do at so many critical times throughout life (e.g. becoming a parent and then an empty-nester, a widow, caring for special needs family members, facing job losses or even promotions). As an introvert, I am truly happy about the prospect of choosing how I will spend my days--no unnecessary meetings or stupid work emails (just writing that makes me smile). I have plenty of interests that I will finally have time and the energy to pursue. I hope.
Sharon said…
It was very hard when my health forc d me to retire at 6/ after a lifetime of fulfilling work asca legislative advicate for low income families. It's still painful, but my husband reminds me that my role as a wise older woman., grandma, and mentor is valuable. Sorry if I've made typos. My macular degeneration is a real handicap.
Duchesse said…
LauraH: The magnetic pull of online life is why I posted on that e-book about "How to Get Fit Watching TV". Three weeks in, it is helping. But I also force myself outdoors for a walk, no excuses if the sun is shining- and if cloudy I have resorted to walking our downtown underground network.

materfamilias: A major move consumes a person. But even then, I was still tenuously anchored in my professional world, and a move is a great project-management exercise, catnip to "productive" personalities. Now, I have to make much more conscious choices abut where to put my energy, and I notice from your blog that you are, too.

Jean Shaw: I hope you get the full time job, if you want it. When I worked nearly full time for a period last year, I was surprised how tired I was; I had kind of forgotten the incremental drain of five days in a row.

angiemanzi: She had clients just begging her to stay, even one day a week. It's hard to leave that kind of appreciation. But she also knows she can return if she wants. Many of us do not have that option.

hostess: Sounds like you have adapted beautifully.

Mme: I think you've nailed it, realizing there is not one retirement model, and that what interests a partner or friends will not attract you, necessarily. One of my friends announced her goal: 220 days of golfing a year, and I realized we would see little of one another- but she is doing what she longed to do.

Lynn L: I continue to mentor several younger colleagues- who are now over 40, yikes! I helped one with his book, which was deeply rewarding. If you enjoy student contact, there are ways to maintain it and I wonder if your institution has a mentoring program.

Melissa Hebbard: Thank you for your endorsement of community service! So heartening to read what your club is doing. I find SAHMs who 'grow' along with their children and transfer that caring to the community have generally satisfying transitions.

Mary: 100 mile commute! I have long felt a long commute is one of the least-acknowledged stressors. And it sounds like, given the tenor of your workplace, shedding your work identity will not be an issue.

Sharon: A health-related retirement, whether through health or layoff is an entirely different thing than a voluntary one, as the identity gets a jolt instead of a gentle segue. But, I think your husband is right, and I bet there are volunteer groups who would deeply appreciate your experience.

Jean Shaw said…
Duchesse, yes, I've considered the "full-time fatigue factor" ... I would be telecommuting, though, which would help. I'm also already doing contract work for them, so I know the ins and outs and many of the other personalities. It's a unique situation, to say the least.
Ruth J said…
So timely for me as well. I was laid off in December at age 62, and decided to work on a short-term project basis for another company. My husband is not well, and my parents are quite elderly, so while I wanted to continue with my full-time job, this could be for the best. I need a reason to get up in the morning, which so far has been to go to my short-term job. I'm kind of worried about what it will be like once the temp job ends. I began the pension payments from my old firm and while I am pretty sure there will be enough money, I can't be certain until we actually cut back to our future retirement income. It is wonderful to hear about others in this challenging time of life.

Thank you.
Bunny said…
Duchesse, this is so pertinent to so many. I retired early at 53 after a career that involved two hours of commuting each day and those 50-70 hour work weeks. Husband and I did a negotiation. I got to retire full-time, got my beautiful, large and dedicated creative space and he got to live closer to his brother who he had not been close to in years. We were lucky to sell our lakefront home in New Hampshire at the peak of a real estate bubble and move to a much less expensive area in the Adirondacks. We still had our waterfront and a small brand new home that didn't require repair and investment of a major sort, the type we had just left. My retirement dream was to fill my days with creativity and I did. I loved that and loved blogging about it. About five years in I realized that this tiny community did not offer me the types of social contacts I would enjoy and needed. This was despite my thrill of full time creativity, I was living in a very isolated world. Husband felt the same. We both decided to go back to work. We both knew that our age would be discriminated against despite our experience and we really did not want to go back to what we previously did. He had owned his own transportation business, just too much. I started out with temp work but found that usually unsatisfactory and sporadic. He got a part time job taking developmentally challenged 2-5 year olds to their special schools. While he was fabulous at what he did and loves it I was still not feeling it. I definitely felt the age discrimination in my interviews as I sat in waiting rooms with pert twenty somethings. I wanted to yell "I have the WASP work ethic and they are millennials. You really want to hire me!" Upon the advice of those wiser than me who had been there, I took a civil service exam. The highest score gets the job and I did. Doesn't matter the age, color, etc. If you are in the US I highly recommend this. I now have the best job of my life. I work in a library all day full time with the most wonderful women and boss imaginable. I get to meet and have made great friends with people who love to read and discuss. It is no pressure and gives me my people contact. The added cash is wonderful as well. While it wasn't really needed it is nice to know we are in a comfort zone financially. Yes, full time is a real adjustment but for me the advantages make it a win-win. So while my husband and I have our illnesses and physical challenges we both have very satisfying work that provides what we need mentally. My only downside is there is limited time for my creativity but knowing how isolated I can get that is not a problem. At least I had some years to try it out. So now I am 67 and part of the working retired.

I have friends who speak of the boredom. It is something I find hard to understand as I truthfully have never had a boring day in my life. I think since my creativity was fostered and encouraged from childhood it is always a place to go to without even thinking about it. I consider it a blessing. I have friends who have been very creative pre retirement and they just stop and then speak of boredom. I think boredom is often self imposed. I mean no disparagement to anyone but since I've never experienced it I find it hard to understand. I guess I'm just the Nike "just do it" type.

Thanks for you wonderful post and I appreciate all the great viewpoints and comments expressed.
Jean Shaw said…
Bunny, thanks for sharing your story. I will be recommending the Civil Service exam to a friend.
Kristien62 said…
I am late to the conversation, but it strikes a chord. I retired after 20 years of a stifling job. I vividly remember my first retired day, joyously washing the car and singing a Bruno Mars song, "The Lazy Song." For five years, I did everything I had dreamt of- traveling, learning guitar, swimming, exercise classes, etc. And then, suddenly, I felt I had run out of steam. I had the empty feeling that none of it "mattered". With some help, I have come to realize that my work life had left me unfulfilled and my retired life seemed almost hedonistic. I hadn't made a mark or done anything meaningful. So I am looking now to fill that void. The answer is out there. And, at the end of the day, how lucky I am to have that as my worst problem. It's actually a bit self-indulgent.
Duchesse said…
Bunny: There are so many variations; thank you for sharing yours. Your job sounds absolutely wonderful. The term "working retired" takes the prize for most winsome oxymoron! Also, I am impressed by your courage and honest re-assessment to make a choice such as a move, and then assess and make further changes.

Kristien62: "I hadn't made a mark or done anything meaningful" is a point of view that is truly a double-edged situation. If someone smiles when he or she sees you, or has a memory of seeing you, that's meaningful. Our culture is achievement-fixated, especially on the big markers, but most people live lives of more modest successes, contributing in ways that are not commemorated. But, if a person does not feel she has made an adequate contribution, there is so much to do.

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