Emotional Preparation for Retirement Life: Identity Issues

Perhaps no other stage of life triggers such intense feelings of excitement and liberation, on the one hand, but, on the other, fear and anxiety. Retirement for many entails a leap of faith after decades of routine. You’re not simply at work Friday, doing your job, and retired Monday, dancing for joy. Retirement is a major transition that unfolds over many years, as we move from the life we know, into the life we will get to know.

Most people don’t realise that psychological and emotional readiness is as important as all the concerns about financial issues in retirement. I have personally witnessed attendees on arrival for a course to ask me “are you the pension’s man”; in other words: I am here to hear about my pension; about money issues and that is all that concerns me so just tell me about how I’m going to survive financially. By the time our course is over attendees realise that while money issues are important, there is a whole lot more to consider about an emotional ‘glide path’ into a life in retirement. So our key message is to set aside any money concerns for now. Of course, money matters, but there’s plenty of guidance for retirees about your financial portfolio; not so much about your emotional portfolio.

Our experience is such that most pre-retirees do not fully comprehend how dramatically their lives will change. A few lucky souls know exactly what their retirement looks like. The rest hope to figure it out as they go along.  Many people are simply not psychologically ready to retire, even if they’re financially able. Their job is their identity.  That is why of the “Big 5” major aspects which we deal with in the “change” section of our courses, the very first is this important question of identity. So we pose two major questions about our identity: Who am I now as I see myself? Then a second reflection on:  Who am I now as I think others see me?

In her major opus entitled Flourishing (Penguin 2011), clinical psychologist Maureen Gaffney deals with the secrets to a changed identity. She points out that identity is not merely tied to work or to family but it is always in the first instance about “YOU”.  As retirement consultants our job is to get people to realise that they have other identities alongside what up to now were the predominant two identities: work and family. Our other identities are to be found in examining and realising what are our interests and hobbies outside of work. Work will not be our identity from now on. Family too grows up and moves on to have personal lives of their own. This leads us to a place which psychologist Kinsman called the need to become “inward directed” as this phase of life. Charles Handy describes a time for “proper selfishness” in the need to get familiar with a new phase of life.

International Research

Research by the US Centres for Disease Control and Prevention shows that adjusting to retirement is difficult for those who fail to anticipate and plan for a life in retirement. Many report more boredom, anxiety, restlessness and feelings of uselessness. Retired men, for example, were found to be 40% more likely than employed men to experience depression. Dr. Nancy K. Schlossberg is credited with designing Schlossberg’s Transition Theory as an adult development theory. Schlossberg, who at 89 years old enjoys a prolific ‘second act’ as an author and public speaker and states that “It’s very important to think about your identity and what you’re losing (when you retire), and how you get a new identity that will give you a sense of meaning and purpose”.

 The Transition Period

Ken Dychtwald is a psychologist, gerontologist, and best-selling author of 16 books on aging-related issues. He refers to a five-part retirement transition curve commencing anytime between 15 to 5 years before retirement at which time we begin to imagine what life in retirement might be like. His retirement curve looks something akin to this:

  1. Imagination around 15 to five years before retirement we begin to imagine that this milestone is coming down the track with all its fantasies, hopes and wishes.
  2. Anticipation stage is around five years prior to retirement and with it comes the reality. Friends are retiring; you’re tired of working, the finish line is in sight. It’s time to seek wise advice on how to handle feelings about leaving regular employment and the supportive social network it typically provides. There is no one-size-fits-all solution, but there are ways to carry the relevancy of your work life into retirement. We recommend that constructing a framework or plan for your retirement should start at least three to five years before your planned date.
  3. Liberation in the first year of retirement. You made it; you’re free, but free to do what. Schlossberg has identified several types of retirees: “adventurers” who shake things up; “searchers” looking to fit in; “easy gliders” who live one day at a time; “involved spectators” who are still connected to their careers; and two kinds of “retreaters” — those who pause to regroup and those who essentially don’t leave their rocking chair. In our particular course we introduce four key elements to guide the preparation of your retirement plan to include: Time Management – a structure to replace what were the routines of working life. Leisure – joining new clubs and pursuing new hobbies. The Productive Element to help maintain our self-esteem and self-worth. And finally what we term the Different Element– this final element is an exciting one where we really delve into our many dreams and ‘wished-fors’ we did not have an opportunity to pursue when we were in the work phase of life.
  4. Reorientation: The honeymoon’s over. It’s been over for a while, in fact. By now, ideally, you’re a year or so into the reorientation stage of retirement. You’ve taken twists and turns, and, finally, you’re settling in to reinvent yourself and pursue what you’ve always wanted but never dared to chase. Now is the time to start paying attention to our legacy. Your legacy is not the material wealth you leave in a will; it’s how you will be remembered. This is a literal opportunity of a lifetime — the chance to distribute the wealth of knowledge, depth and wisdom you’ve acquired jto the next generation. In our courses we make attendees think seriously about what we term their Circles of Success – what we have achieved in our lifetime that we can be truly proud of, from the simplest achievement to a possible extraordinary feat or experience.
  5. Reconciliation can take years after retirement to really appreciate who we are now. This we call the goal-setting phase where we reach the point of Maslow’s Self Actualisation – the search for truth, justice and meaning. The realisation that the old adage the “much wants more” is replaced with a strong Sense of Enough.


As our identity changes we need to be resilient and resourceful. We must maintain social contacts, stay physically active, practice self-compassion and consider part-time work or volunteering. Give yourself the space for retired life to become your new normal. This journey requires flexibility and resilience. Now, however, having constructed a good retirement plan you will appreciate and be happy that you didn’t just retire: rather you had something to retire to, namely your Plan.

Enjoy the journey! Remember the wise words of Ghandi:

Live every day as if it were your last– Learn every day as if it were your first.

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