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October 3, 2013
by Christie Hunter

Retirement and Identity Loss: How to Cope with Leaving the Workforce

October 3, 2013 06:55 by Christie Hunter  [About the Author]

Retirement is defined as “the point where a person stops employment completely”. This may seem like a daunting event in a person’s life, but it need not be. Retirement ought to be thought of as less of a life event and more of a life transition or series of transitions. In fact, many people adjust quite well to retirement. Most recent retirees even report an improvement in life quality, and those who felt dissatisfaction in life post-retirement reported improvements in life quality within a few months. Only a small percentage of people did not adjust well to retirement. [1]

Who deals with retirement better?

Personalities tend not to change over time and how a person behaved earlier in life is a very good indicator of how they will behave later in life. For example, if a person was very active throughout most of their life, they will most likely also remain active in retirement. Those who learned to deal with change at younger ages are more likely to have developed coping strategies to deal with change in their later years as well. The sudden autonomy and freedom present in the retirement years provides new challenges and excitement. If a person was accustomed to being autonomous and creative in their working years they will most likely cope very well with retirement. (Starving artists, rejoice!) [2]

Access to resources is also correlated with retirement satisfaction. While having access to financial savings and benefits is extremely important to a successful retirement, so too is having access to emotional, physical, social, cognitive and motivational resources. Those who have a support system, close circle of friends, good health, and a fit intellect and drive will make the adjustment better than someone who lacks resources. [1]

Who tends to fare poorly with retirement?

Gender, race and social class may influence how well one copes with retirement. Education and work experience may affect the access to savings and benefits, which are greatly associated with retirement satisfaction. (Not so fast, starving artists!) Those in life who have not had the opportunity to work for long years in the workforce or do not have a spouse’s benefits to rely upon may face stress in retirement as they do not have access to basic emotional and financial resources necessary to ride out the retirement years. Divorced women and minorities are often faced with poverty in retirement. [3]

On the other hand, someone who strongly identified their role in life as being a member of the workforce may feel a greater loss of identity as their role as a productive member of society is removed. For example, someone who had a lucrative and powerful job as a CEO may find their reduction in social and financial status distressing and result in lowered self-esteem. Losing peers and work-related friends may complicate these feelings of identity loss. [2]

How to make the transition to retirement easier

Planning ahead for retirement certainly makes transitioning easier. No point in waiting until the last minute, either, to begin planning, only to be stunned with a sudden change in circumstances. A good two years before retirement should be the beginning the planning process. It is very important to plan not only how you are going to pay for your retirement, but also how you intend to enjoy it.  We often hear about retirement planning centered around finances, and little emphasis is placed on emotional planning.  Think of this as a new era, a new chapter for you, and one that is unwritten.  You...and no one else...gets to decide how this chapter in your life will unfold.  So take steps now to lay out some goals and dreams for yourself when you retire, and do a bit of emotional planning.

Forgetting the past may be good advice most of the time, but retirement planning is a great time to look to the past to plan your future. Think about all the things that you have always wanted to do in life. Was there a trip you always wanted to take? Retirement may be a good time to do it. What were your early interests? Why not volunteer in a related area or work as an intern in that field? Are there any friends with whom you always meant to spend more time? This is a great time in life to reconnect with old friends and make new ones. Think about where you might like to live, as well. Perhaps a change of location will add to your retirement enjoyment if there was a place in which you always wanted to live but work commitments prohibited it. [4]

As always a healthy dose of perspective is great in dealing with the transition of retirement. How you perceive retirement may have a lot to do with how you cope with it.

Well-being fluctuates, so do not expect the path to retirement to be clear. There are twists and turns, but none of them need be necessarily negative. There may be happy surprises on the path to retirement as well.


[1] [“Retirement Adjustments: A Review of Theoretical and Empirical Advancements”, Mo Wong et al. American Psychologist, 2011 file:///home/chronos/user/Downloads/2011_Retirement+Adjustment.pdf ]

[2] [“Women’s Retirement, Occupation, and Depressive Symptoms” Princeton, 2009 ]

[3] [“Racial and Ethnic Differences in the Retirement Prospects of Divorced Women in the baby Boom and Generation X Cohorts” by Barbara A Butrica and Karen E Smith. 2012 ]

[4] [“ Reinventing yourself in retirement: A successful transition may mean shedding your old identity and finding a new one” ]


About the Author

Christie Hunter

Christie Hunter is registered clinical counselor in British Columbia and co-founder of Theravive. She is a certified management accountant. She has a masters of arts in counseling psychology from Liberty University with specialty in marriage and family and a post-graduate specialty in trauma resolution. In 2007 she started Theravive with her husband in order to help make mental health care easily attainable and nonthreatening. She has a passion for gifted children and their education. You can reach Christie at 360-350-8627 or write her at christie - at -

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