Defining yourself after retirement

The key to an interesting and fulfilling life after retirement is in defining your post-work identity.

By Dr Jon Glass - 3 min read

A little about Jon

Dr Jon Glass runs retirement coaching business 64PLUS (The opinions expressed are those of Dr Jon Glass and 64Plus. Russell Investments does not endorse, and is not accountable for, any views expressed by Dr Jon Glass or 64Plus.) He coaches individuals to a clearer understanding of the issues they will face post work. He has studied counselling and coaching at The Australian College of Applied Psychology and The Institute of Executive Coaching and Leadership.

I work as a retirement coach, typically with people on the verge of retirement. I often find myself listening to clients as they pose this question (of course in their own words): “Will I still be an interesting person after I retire from work?” 

This is such an important question. Why? Well, when you were working, think of the times when a stranger asked you what you do for a living. I’m certain that your answer was full of clarity and passion. That tells me your work conferred an identity on you that you could clearly explain.  

That said, let me open some more general points: Are you an interesting person? And how do other people think of you?  

Those are not easy questions to answer. It’s a concept many people wrestle with for their whole lives. The Scottish poet Robbie Burns considered these themes when he wrote: “Oh would some power the gift give us, to see ourselves as others see us.”  

Putting all this together, our initial question “Will I still be an interesting person after I retire from work?” is the key to unlocking the answer to a bigger question: what will my identity consist of when I retire? 

The real you  

You may claim that your identity is innate. No. The transition to retirement is one of those momentous events in life that uncovers a need to re-think your identity or how you project yourself into the world. 

When you worked, you had an identity defined by your job or occupation: dentist, bus driver, wine maker or many, many other possibilities. That identity may have been reinforced by a distinctive uniform or even a business card that showed your title. 

Now in retirement all of that blows away like straw in the wind. At first when you retire, you may project your identity as a relaxed person who no longer has to wake up at 6 am on a Monday, or a fun person who can do whatever they want each day.   

I predict that won’t be enough to satisfy you over the medium to long term. But here’s the good news. You have the power to define your new identity. I’m not saying it’s straightforward. It’s a good idea to try and fail a few times. No shame there. 

Keep the best, clear the rest 

What I suggest is that you start to think about aspects of your work identity that you would like to preserve. After all, those aspects lived with you and you co-habited with them for four decades, so they probably aren’t all bad. Here is a very short list (you will be able to add to it) of selected examples: 

  • Being of value to others 
  • Learning new things 
  • Participating in your community 
  • Mentoring younger people 
  • Creating new things  
  • Exploring and travelling. 

You are free to pick and choose what aspects you maintain. The choices you make will derive from your deepest sense of self, your needs and wants, and the meaning and purpose that you seek in retirement.  

This voyage of self-discovery will enhance your fulfilment in retired life but be warned: it’s not simple. 

There is an unattributed quote I have read that says: “When you’re 20, you care what everyone thinks; when you’re 40, you stop caring what everyone thinks; and when you’re 60, you realise no one was ever thinking about you in the first place.” 

As amusing as this may be, I don’t believe it for a moment. Most of us do want to be interesting and live interesting lives. 

The point of your retirement gives you a powerful opportunity to work towards the gift that Robbie Burns was wishing for: to see yourself in retirement as you want others to see you.


The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not purport to reflect the views and opinions of Russell Investments.

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