If you have a close friend, relative, or associate approaching retirement age, you might envy them. A life free of daily work responsibilities has its charm. Living off one’s prior labors, traveling, golfing, working in the garden—these are options many of us crave as we stress about making this month’s house payment.
But I don’t think envy is really appropriate. Most of the people I know who are nearing or at retirement age — especially men —are struggling with this time of life. There are people for whom retirement is a joyous celebration of a job well done; they relish the new life of discovery, leisure, and fun. But for many, retirement presents a set of unsettling challenges — notably a loss of identity as the responsibilities, status, and excitement of working go away.
The good news is that in most cases we don’t have to retire; a productive working life can continue late into life. My father is 85 years old and still has a regular job. He recently showed me his performance review, and his average score was 4.75 on a 5-point scale.
But even my father will probably have to stop working at some point, and even at his advanced age he may have to deal with a loss of identity and self-respect when that day comes.
The challenge for all of us is to develop our sense of self independent of our paying job. There’s nothing wrong with having a strong attachment to our work — in fact it’s wonderful to do work that provides us a robust sense of our value and contribution. But if we do retire, or are “forcibly retired” through downsizing, we need a solid sense of self and a new set of goals and aspirations to keep us alive and inspired.
Many of us experience a kind of emotional fusion to our jobs. We are unable to see ourselves as whole outside that context. No matter our enthusiasm for our work, this can lead to crisis or loss of balance. And, we perform better at our jobs if we aren’t fused in this way.
YOUR PATH FORWARD:
- No matter what your age, consider how tied your identity is to your current work, and whether the loss of that work would be a difficult blow.
- Consider what other things you do with your time that add depth, interest, and enrichment to your life.
- Try to imagine yourself not working and see how it feels. What would you need to do to make it feel satisfying?