How to avoid a retirement identity crisis

There are steps you can take to make the move to retirement less jolting

Published: February 20, 2015 06:00 AM

Keeping connected to your industry after retirement might not be your inclination once you’ve handed in your ID and packed up your desk. But if what you do is very much connected to who you feel you are, losing that tether can be disconcerting.

When the Consumer Reports National Research Center polled Consumer Reports online subscribers who expected to retire within the next five years, almost half said they would miss being involved in the profession, business, or field they enjoyed. Forty-seven percent reported that they’d miss the challenges of the job that made life interesting. More than one-third said they would miss the opportunities their job gave them to expand their knowledge.

Catherine Frank, executive director of the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute at the University of North Carolina at Asheville and a facilitator in “Paths to a Creative Retirement” workshops, says that retirees who held positions of power face an additional challenge. “I often hear the phrase ‘previously important person,’ ” she says. “It means someone who can’t see himself in a new context and is still holding on to an older identity. It’s not a title anyone wants to earn.”

Maintain some ties

So how can you continue to have a healthy connection to your old identity while moving on to a new one?

  • Join a professional or industry organization. It might offer volunteer opportunities at meetings and conventions, and positions on boards or committees.
  • Continue to subscribe to professional journals and magazines.
  • Check out the websites of your industry’s groups and publications. You might even find a Facebook page or blog for alumni of your organization.
  • Don’t forget, too, that your identity—and happiness—is tied to the personal bonds you make at work. In our survey, 43 percent of respondents said that in retirement they would be sad to leave behind close friends. If you’re not already connected with colleagues outside of the office, chances are you can find them on Facebook or other social networks. Arrange to meet forcoffee.

Consumer Reports' Retirement Planning Guide provides advice on making your second act fulfilling and financially secure.

Bela Buslig, Ph.D., 76, has found numerous ways to stay connected to the field he loves. He has volunteered at conventions of the American Chemical Society, helping to explain complex concepts to the media. He has worked part time in another chemist’s lab, exploring how to improve the shelf life of fruit. At Bok Tower Gardens, a historic landmark near his Florida home, he has led science experiments on “Citrus Days,” explaining to children why, for instance, a grapefruit floats in water and a lime sinks. (It has to do with the density of the rind.)

As Buslig discovered, it’s possible to transition from a career you love into retirement without losing your professional identity. In fact, the move has had its perks. “When you work for an organization running projects, you’re restricted to those areas,” he explains. “After you retire, you have the opportunity to do different things.”

Try something new

Also consider applying your expertise to a different arena. Sidney Frommer, 73, transferred his skills from years as a computer systems manager with the New York City Transit Authority to a role mentoring with SCORE, a not-for-profit that pairs seasoned professionals with small-business owners. “I love it, and I intend to stay there as long as they’ll have me,” he says.

Frank says that approach is a healthy way to view a new life chapter. “When you take a skill and pursue it in a new way and with a new audience, that’s key to maintaining your identity but also re-envisioning it,” she says. “If you’re stuck in who you were, it’s hard to see who you can become.” 

—Tobie Stanger (@TobieStanger on Twitter)

Editor's Note:

A version of this article appeared in the February 2015 Consumer Reports Money Adviser.

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