In the years leading up to retirement, many people spend a lot of time and energy making sure they are physically and financially secure. From taking care of expensive medical procedures to meeting with a financial planner, there are countless "to dos" as you think about leaving full-time work. But while financial and physical security are both very important, they're not the only factors to consider when moving to this next stage of life.
Many seniors can find the transition out of a full-time career and into retirement stressful and disorienting. "There are many benefits from retirement such as leisure time, lower stress, opportunity to travel or pursue other interests," explains therapist Jacob Brown of Therapy for Aging and Grief. "But we also lose many important parts of our lives, such as our identity as a working person, a status in the world, income, and a sense of purpose."
Indeed, a lot of people strongly identify themselves with their jobs, and without the enforced structure of work, Brown says these people can find themselves doing less overall, rather than enjoying themselves more. The danger is that, once the novelty of free time wears off, some retirees will lose a sense of meaning in their lives, leading to feelings of depression and loss. That's why the transition into retirement really has to begin well before your last day of work, and it all starts with a deep examination of who you are outside your career. What brings you purpose, and how can you plan to engage with those things as much as possible? If work brings you purpose, how can you replicate that sense of purpose outside the office?
"By engaging yourself and actively thinking about your identity, you can view yourself beyond the one dimension of a career," explains Deborah Heiser, PhD, an applied developmental psychologist who specializes in the over-50 population. Think about things like your favorite hobbies, connections within your community, and meaningful relationships within your family. All of these things can help ease the transition into retirement. Here are seven other pieces of wise advice:
1. Grieve your working self
Retirement can be a celebration of a new phase of life, explains clinical psychologist Carly Claney, but it also marks a significant loss of one's sense of self. "While it may feel strange to anticipate grief alongside the freedom and joy of retirement, it's important to understand that you're entering into an unknown stage that necessitates you leaving behind parts of yourself that you've grown to depend on," she adds. Taking time to truly acknowledge this change and honor the years you spent devoted to your career will make it easier to let them go.
2. Change how you define productivity
Claney explains that in the working world, accomplishments or successes are often measured in the amount of time, effort, or struggle you put into a project. But once you're retired, it's likely you'll need to adjust this view and start thinking about accomplishment and productivity in new ways. You won't be able to measure it in money you bring in for a company, or new hires you make, or clients you satisfy, so you'll need to come up with new metrics for success. These can come in the form of new personal commitments, like perhaps reading a certain number of books in a month, or reaching a fitness goal each morning.
3. Consider becoming a mentor
Being a mentor is not something exclusive to the working world. In fact, many retirees take on a mentoring role once they leave work. That's why Heiser recommends sharing your expertise with the people around you, especially if you have a specific skill with which you identify. Imparting knowledge on others can be incredibly satisfying and fulfilling, and lead to a renewed sense of purpose.
4. Get serious about your hobbies
Heiser recommends engaging in an interest you've always had but didn't necessarily have the time to put real energy into. Now's the time to indulge and let yourself do what you've always loved — or find something new that you really enjoy. This is a great time to perfect your golf game, or finally finish the flower beds you've been meaning to work on for the last 10 years.
5. Give back to your community
Volunteering in an organization or for a cause you are passionate about is another effective way to shift your identity. It's also a great way to find new friends and maintain a sense of community. Heiser says giving back is very powerful, and identifying with a cause, community, or faith organization can bring great satisfaction.
6. Embrace free time
Filling every open slot on your calendar is not going to make your transition any easier. Brown suggests you allow for some free time to reflect on what's important to you in this new stage of life. This is especially important early on when you need to mourn your working life and really take time to reflect on what brings you purpose.
7. Try out new identities
You knew who you were as an employee, but who do you want to be as a retiree? Don't be afraid to try a few identities, says Brown. Remember, this is a time of exploration and reinvention. Don't feel like you have to stick to your first choice. Maybe try something challenging, or even slightly scary. "Retirement isn't all about leisure," Brown says. "It's also about taking on new challenges." Use this phase of your life to find new ways to challenge both your brain and your body, and embrace the inevitable personal growth that you experience as a result.