Finding a New Identity in Retirement

The hardest part of retirement is developing a purpose outside of your job.

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Almost everything you read about retirement preparation is focused on finance. There are legions of experts to help you figure out your asset allocation, how much you need to save and how much you can safely withdraw. While it’s good to have the finances worked out, that’s not the only difficult part of retirement. In the U.S., most of us are identified by our job. Often, the first question we ask when we meet someone is, “So, what do you do?” What do you say when you aren't tied to a job anymore?

Joe Udo
Joe Udo
In addition to providing income, a job is also an easy way to feel good about ourselves. We feel like we are contributing to society and accomplishing something every day. There are problems to be solved and new things to learn constantly. Without a career, we are left to fill the void ourselves. This is not easy and the UK’s Institute of Economic Affairs reported that 40 percent of retirees suffer from clinical depression. The retirement transition can be abrupt, so it's a good idea to prepare a bit before that happy day arrives.

Have a plan. We are all so busy working and saving for retirement that most of us never think about how difficult the transition will really be. New retirees will do things they have always wanted to do like shopping or golfing all day. This is fun for a while, but eventually most people will feel like they have lost their purpose. For the long term, we need something more substantial than just the absence of work.

It’s not enough to relax and read a book all day after you retire. You need to have goals and challenges so you’ll feel like you’re accomplishing something. That’s why it’s important to cultivate hobbies and interests when you are still working. People who work 60 plus hours per week may have a hard time with retirement because they invested so much in their job without having time for anything else.

Here are some tips to help you find a new purpose and new mission after retirement:

Keep growing and don’t stagnate. Make a list of big challenges you’d like to accomplish in retirement. Learning a new language, writing a book, picking up an instrument and learning photography are some popular challenges for retirees.

Join a community. Volunteering and giving back gives you a chance to share your skills and experiences in a positive manner. Many charitable organizations are looking for volunteers, so it shouldn’t be hard to find something you care about. It’s also a chance to network and make connections with like-minded people.

Slowly transition into retirement. Many people come back to work after retirement because the transition is too jarring. Working part time or consulting gives you a chance to figure out retirement and what to do with all of those unstructured hours.

Don’t expect everything to work out right away. Retirement can take a little time to get used to. You might be restless at first, but keep trying different activities and experiences to find what fits. Don’t despair if learning a new language doesn’t work out. There are many more challenges to try.

Your professional identity is hard to let go of, but we all need to relinquish it someday. Retirement is a chance to create a new you, so embrace it and take your time with it.

Joe Udo blogs at Retire By 40 where he writes about passive income, frugal living, retirement investing and the challenges of early retirement. He recently left his corporate job to be a stay at home dad and blogger and is having the time of his life.