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The View From Unretirement: Retirement can mean a loss of identity — how to bring happiness to your next act

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For many people transitioning into retirement, the famous lines from the start of “A Chorus Line” resonate: “Who am I anyway? Am I my résumé? That is a picture of a person I don’t know!”

Struggling with carving out a new identity in retirement, or massaging the identity you had when working full time, can be a serious challenge.

“That identity issue is so huge because we spend our entire life building up to who we’re supposed to be,” said Michael Kay, who recently retired from the Livingston, N.J., financial planning firm he founded in 2001.

He now runs the Chapter X community for “men transitioning to life after work” and noted that identity is “a pretty frequent part of the conversation.”

Read: Once considered on the cusp of retirement, these people are taking a ‘gap year’ after successful careers

‘Who the heck am I?’

Breaking away from a career you’ve grown for 40-odd years, Kay noted, “you pull the rug out and it’s like, ‘OK, who the heck am I?”

Stuart Silverman wrestled with that question at age 67 in 2016 after retiring from the Mountain View, Calif., sales and market company he founded about 15 years earlier.

Before retiring, Silverman said, “I had a really fabulous identity. I was doing good work. I was well respected.”

But he didn’t have much going on outside of his job. 

“Work was my hobby,” he noted. So, when Silverman did retire, “I began to realize that this is a problem.”

Read: ‘It democratizes what you get’: Hearing aids are now available over the counter — what you need to know

Finding his new identity in retirement

After doing some soul searching with his wife, Terry, Silverman decided he’d find his new identity by offering presentations—and then a 12-week course—all about transitioning to retirement. He loves it and loves helping others struggling with retirement challenges, including identity.

Joe Casey, a Princeton, N.J., retirement coach who is author of “Win the Retirement Game” and host of “The Retirement Wisdom Podcast,” calls identity “one of the biggest issues that I see working with clients in the transition to retirement.”

The reason? 

“We tend to conflate who we are with what we do,” said Casey.

Silverman said a transition to retirement can be “a grieving process.” Part of it may include grieving the work identity that’s now behind you.

“If you’ve had a very stressful career, there’s a decompression time,” noted Carl Landau, the Sacramento, Calif. host of the podcast with the tongue-in-cheek name, “I Used to Be Somebody.”

Read: The number of baby boomers and Generation X who plan to work past age 70—or forever—is stunning

Who struggles more than others

While something of a generalization, men tend to be more prone than women to face identity issues when entering retirement, according to the four retirement experts I spoke with for this column.

Casey said the women clients of his retirement planning practice tend to have an edge over men “because they’ve thought of themselves more broadly than just their job.”

Identity can be especially challenging for doctors and lawyers accustomed to being thought of based on their titles and status.

“I had a client who was an oral surgeon and six months after he had to relinquish ownership of his practice, he told me that he had become a ‘fill-in surgeon’ for ‘this doctor, this doctor and this doctor,’” Kay recalled.

“’He said: ‘Michael, I’ve been a doctor all my life. I don’t want to be a mister.’ And I turned to him and said, ‘Listen, I’ve been a mister all my life. It doesn’t suck that badly.’ But you know, he couldn’t cross that bridge.”

Landau is an entrepreneur who calls himself “unretired” as I do. (“The idea of being retired sounds dreadful. It says, ‘You’re done,’” he said.)

He said he didn’t struggle with identity after selling his Niche Media live events/conference/trade show business in 2019. And Landau believes entrepreneurs, as a rule, have less trouble with identity in retirement than former employees and managers.

“I think entrepreneurs are pretty good [dealing with identity in retirement] because they’re so used to failure,” Landau joked. “You’re always trying new things and it’s not that big a deal.”

Read: There’s no rush to buy I-bonds

The fun of forging a new identity

Landau, who has interviewed more than 60 podcast guests “who used to be somebody,” calls finding your identity after you stop full-time work “a great challenge that’s really fun.” His new identity also includes being a stand-up comic and—as a recent pickleball fanatic—co-author of the new book, “Pickleball for Dummies.”

For some people—and I’d call myself one of them—adopting an identity in retirement means holding on to some of the identity you had while working full time. That can mean doing the same type of work, just less of it. Said Kay: “It’s a lot less daunting to replace two days than it is to replace five.”

In other words, your new identity doesn’t need to be 100% new. “Sometimes we just have to update our identity, the way we update our iPhones,” said Casey.

Or it can mean adapting your skills to something different in retirement, as Silverman has; it took him roughly three months to find his new identity.

“When I worked, I was feeling very good that I was helping sales reps get jobs, moving the world forward, helping the economy,” he said. These days, Silverman said, he gets that feeling by helping others learn how to retire.

“The most important thing in moving into this next stage [of retirement] is wrestling to the ground this concept of identity, purpose and meaning,” Silverman noted. “This one—you’ve got to get. Finances are important. Health is important. Many other things are important. But if you don’t get this one, it can spiral down into depression.”

Assessing yourself

In the retirement transition course Silverman offers, he gives participants an assessment sheet to rank their happiness on a 0 to 10 scale as well as a list of 50 values and drivers that could be important to them in retirement. He also asks them to list the pros and cons about their full-time work and a list of the pros and cons they’re feeling about retirement.

“By going through these, it helps them get a sense of what was their identity and purpose when they were working and what it should be now,” he said.

Kay said it’s about finding your “joy.” He advised: “Think about what turns you on, what provides you with a level of satisfaction.”

However, as Casey wrote in “Win the Retirement Game,” in retirement, some people answer the question, “So, what do you do?” in the past tense.

“They describe who they used to be,” he noted. “But people who are thriving in this next chapter answer it differently, in the present tense. They describe what they’re engaged in, what drives them now. They talk about the new story they’re living.”

Pursuing a new or former passion

Sometimes, finding a new identity in retirement can mean pursuing a new (or perhaps former) passion, such as art or performing.

Kay returned to the trumpet and now plays with the South Orange Symphony Orchestra and at a jazz club in Montclair, N.J., He and his wife are currently learning how to play bridge.

After Bob Vogel retired from being a communications professor at Miami University in 2009 (one of Landau’s favorites while a student there), he began touring the country playing piano. These days, the 80-year-old “is the entertainment at Smokey’s, a high-end restaurant in Wisconsin. He’s having a ball doing it,” said Landau.

Embrace being a beginner

Don’t worry about not being an instant success when learning something new in retirement to forge your new identity. “Give yourself permission to be bad at something,” advised Casey.

Added Landau: “It’s sort of fun to embrace being a beginner and just learning. Once you do that, there’s a huge world in front of you.”

If you have a spouse or partner and you’re struggling with identity in retirement, the experts I interviewed strongly recommend discussing that with them.

Said Kay: “The first step is to have that big conversation about, ‘This is what I’m thinking of doing. How does that impact you? How does that impact us?’ And also, the idea that ‘I might struggle with this. I might be off my game.’”

Silverman said doing so was a huge help for him. “Terry was very supportive. She said, ‘Whatever works for you, honey, and I’ll help you through it.”

How long it can take to find your identity

Don’t be alarmed if identity issues tie you up in knots for the first few months of retirement or even the first year. But if they’re still problematic after a year, “I think beyond a year, then you have some problems and you may want to seek help,” said Landau.

That could mean talking with a therapist or a life coach or with friends, family or others who’ve gone through a similar transition.

Remember, said Casey, you’re much more than what you used to do.

“If we see ourselves as tied to our job, it minimizes the fact that we’re all multidimensional,” he noted. “Having a chance to step back and think about the other parts of who we are can be really helpful.”

If you’re struggling with identity in retirement, or have had that experience, I’d love to hear from you about it. Drop me an email. Thanks!

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