September 23, 2021

How To Head Off A Post-Work Identity Crisis

How To Head Off A Post-Work Identity Crisis


Will you still be relevant when you’re no longer working? That’s something many people wonder as they near retirement. While the simple answer is yes, you may find that the toughest audience to convince is yourself. That’s because grieving the loss of a workplace identity is far more common than most people think.

While we all experience different roles and identities throughout our lives – such as parents, grandparents, spouses, siblings, or social identities based on race, religion, or ethnicity – one of the most common ways we self-identify is through our occupations. One reason is the sheer amount of time we spend working versus engaged in other activities. Another is because work can provide a sense of accomplishment, self-worth and confidence. Whether you’ve spent 30+ years as a teacher, farmer, small business owner or the CEO of a major corporation, coming to terms with your new identity as a retiree can be hard. In fact, for many, the lack of a clear identity in retirement can lead to feelings of depression, loneliness and isolation. That makes it important to spend time thinking about your post-work identity, well before you retire.

Why you need a plan for life after work

Transitioning from a lifetime of work to life in retirement is a significant milestone. Yet, it’s important to remember that retirement is not a single, isolated event. Rather, it’s the beginning of a new phase in your life’s journey that may last even longer than your working years. While that makes it critical to ensure you will have the income you need to support your desired lifestyle for another 20 or 30+ years, the first step is defining what that lifestyle will look like. How will you spend your time? Who will you spend it with? What type of activities and experiences will bring purpose and meaning to your life?

Over more than three decades as an independent wealth advisor, I’ve met with hundreds of individuals and couples seeking to put a financial plan in place for retirement. Many arrive at our initial meeting well prepared with financial account statements organized and in hand. However, even the most prepared are often stumped by the question, “What do you intend to do the week after you retire?”

More often than not, people have a vague idea about how they will spend their time in retirement. Often, it involves a lot of golf, fishing, lounging along a shoreline, traveling to exotic locations and time spent with kids and grandkids. Several years ago, a friend of mine who was in the process of transitioning his family law practice to his eldest daughter, described this exact scenario when I asked him what he planned to do in retirement. I told him that sounded like the two-week vacation he takes each year with his extended family. Knowing that this wasn’t a guy who could sit still for long, even behind a fishing rod or a drink that came with its own umbrella, I asked him, “What do you plan to do for the remaining 50 weeks of the year?”

Finding your purpose

While the concept of life in retirement as one long vacation may sound appealing after years of hard work and hectic schedules, many people find it lacks a sense of purpose over the long run. And purpose, after all, is what leads to fulfillment. That doesn’t mean you should give up your dream of playing golf every chance you get. It simply means that you need to spend some time focusing on what brings meaning to your life outside of work.

For example, when I dug a little deeper, my friend actually had a lot of ideas about how he would spend his time after stepping away from his law practice. He wanted to take up organic vegetable gardening, work alongside his wife to remodel the lake house that had been in her family for three generations and teach his young grandkids how to water ski. He also planned to use his legal skills as a volunteer at a local women’s shelter where he served on the board of directors, to connect victims of domestic violence with pro-bono legal services. The latter turned out to be a great way for him to make the mental and emotional transition from 40 years as a hard-charging attorney to a less stressful lifestyle, while staying connected to professional colleagues and remaining intellectually engaged.

That was five years ago, and I’m happy to say my friend and his wife are enjoying life in retirement more than ever. But that’s not always the case. I’ve seen people with more than enough money to support themselves in retirement go back to work because they felt their lives lacked purpose. Without work, they didn’t know how to define themselves. The missed the structure and routine of the workplace and the loss of daily contact with work friends and associates led to feelings of isolation. The same can be true when people retire early, and their spouse or friends are still working.

This is why a holistic approach to planning for life in retirement is so important. A holistic approach addresses considerations well beyond the financial implications to include other important aspects of retirement readiness, such as whether you’re emotionally prepared to transition away from work. That begins with identifying the people, things and experiences that provide meaning in your life. It will not only enable you to fill your hours and days with meaning and purpose when you’re no longer working but enable you and your financial advisor to put a structured plan in place to help accomplish the full range of your lifestyle goals.

If you’re concerned about how you will define your life in retirement, schedule time to meet with an independent financial advisor to help you identify your goals, evaluate your needs, and put a plan in place that reflects the people, places and experiences that are most important to you. Keep in mind, a successful retirement isn’t about how much wealth you’ve accumulated, it’s about how your wealth can be used to support your goals and aspirations.

To help determine if you’re financially and emotionally prepared to transition to the next exciting phase of your life, take our Retirement Readiness Quiz or download out complimentary guide, Living in Retirement.



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