Retirement as Identity Crisis

My sister taught in elementary schools for most of her adult life. She was in her 50s when she was laid off by the private school where she’d worked for years—an involuntary retirement. She was terribly upset.

“Teaching isn’t what I do,” she told me. “It’s who I am.”

Retirement affects some people that way: it creates an identity crisis. If I had to give up writing, I’d feel the same way. Writing is who I am. 

How does one come back from a blow like that? A friend told me what she did. 

Like my sister, the friend was a teacher, and she too felt lost when she left the Boston high school, where she’d loved teaching math, to move to New York City for family reasons. 

She hated to give up teaching but was reluctant to go through everything she’d have to do to get teaching credentials in New York State, so when she was offered a job on Wall Street, she took it. But after that, she turned every new position she held into some form of teaching—or that’s how she thought of it. For instance, while she was a financial consultant, most of her clients were women, recently widowed, whose husbands had always handled their finances and who now had a lot to learn about investing. 

Forty percent of retirees are forced to retire, as my sister was, a double whammy for those who identify with the work they do. An identity crisis after retirement can make itself felt as depression, anxiety or both—and it’s not uncommon. 

Small wonder, since when you meet someone new, usually one of the first things they ask is, “What do you do?” “I’m retired” sounds pretty lame if you’ve spent most of a lifetime telling people you’re a nurse, a physiotherapist, a lawyer or whatever. And an identity crisis isn’t just about how you want other people to see you, it’s about how you see yourself. 

Many people’s work lives provide them with much more than a salary. Those who love their job will tell you that, despite occasional frustrations, it gives them a sense of accomplishment—even a sense of purpose—and it buoys their self-confidence. 

What can you do if retiring has brought on an identity crisis or you’re afraid it will? Here are a few suggestions from experts, plus examples from my own experience.  

Find a way to go on working. A growing number of older people are doing that, and not always because they need the income. In 2023, roughly one in five Americans 65 and older were still in the workforce. Studies suggested that they’d stay healthier than those who retired. 

Wean yourself gradually. When he reached retirement age, my father, a middle manager at a huge corporation, was delighted when the company offered to scale back his responsibilities if he’d stay on. He continued to do his job part time for several years. 

Retire and try on new identities. A couple of men I know (an engineer and an accountant) got involved with community theaters and developed a side of themselves they’d barely known was there. 

Take classes in adult education. It’s a way to learn more about whatever piques your curiosity and meet new people. A friend who owned a small business had never had a chance to go to college. After he finally—reluctantly—retired, he took an adult-education class and enjoyed it so much that afterward he took classes every semester, studying everything from sociology to European history. They were enough of a challenge to change the way he saw himself and what he was capable of. 

Volunteer. Become more deeply involved with family and your community. A retired doctor I know became the go-to caregiver for his very young grandchildren. After my father fully retired, he drove for years for Meals on Wheels. While delivering hot dinners to homebound folks, he also made sure they were safe and spent some time talking to them. For those who were isolated, that was the bright spot in their day. The task was probably good for Dad as well. Researchers report that older people do better when they know there’s someone who needs them—which can become part of a new identity. 

Adopt a pet. That will definitely make you feel needed. 

After the trauma of retirement, my sister found a way to go on teaching: she became a docent in a butterfly house, where she took visiting children on tours. To her surprise, even parents who started out uninterested in what she had to say often became fascinated as she explained things like the way lowly caterpillars turn into exquisite insects with wings. When health problems forced her to stop leading tours, she switched to writing a nature column for a community newsletter, teaching readers about the world around them. 

If I have to stop writing someday, I hope I can adapt even half as well as my sister has.