Adults in Transition Think of Retirement as Rewirement

I suppose I should not be surprised, but I am, at how many well respected, successful people edge towards an age when mandatory or an unexpected “retirement” looms or occurs and they become unsettled. Often, I have found in my practice, that a significant reason they become unsettled is because they sense and fear that their self-identity is under threat. Having been defined by “what they do”, they are uncomfortable by suddenly being defined by “who they are”.

Just think of times when people have introduced themselves as “Hi, I’m a lawyer, a doctor, a fireman or an electrician.” Have you ever introduced yourself in this manner or even thought more fundamentally that your role defines who you believe you are, e.g. a partner in a firm, a member of a team, etc.?

With the generations of Millennials (born between 1980-1997) and Gen Z’s (born between 1997-2012) increasingly part of our workforce and seeking upward mobility, todays Baby Boomers (born between 1945-1965) and even some of the older members of the Gen X generation (born between 1965-1980), are at an age or stage where they are easing out of their roles, into a world where they still have many decades to live, thanks to increased longevity. Sometimes the easing out is self-directed and other times not so, perhaps due to mandatory retirement, a firing or layoff. It is often these scenarios that become a trigger for raising fears of relevance, identity concerns and a lack of clarity about how to define one’s passions and purpos to move forward.

A sudden loss of your role for which you may have spent many decades practicing and perfecting, is as if you are being thrust onto an unfamiliar stage as a cast member of a play, without sufficient rehearsal or any rehearsal time indeed. For some people facing retirement, it can be like stage fright, a fear of the unknown, being outside of your comfort zone of how proudly you have been defined by what you do.

My opinion is that retirement is often not the right word to use. Why? Because after stepping away from a career, company or commitment of an employer for many years and with several likely decades of productive life ahead, for many a new vocation arises. I like to call the time when you step down from many years of a career or role, as transitional time for “rewirement”. Fortunately for many, purpose and passions have been well honed for several years prior to retiring, but for those who have not accomplished this, this can be a challenging time to transition and move forward.

Actually, to transition to the next phase of your life, there needs to be a rewiring of your brain (neuroplasticity) to different neural patterns of behaviors and habits as you seek and then assume a new vocation using differing skills and mindset; whether in starting your own business, working in a for profit or not for profit business or perhaps in academia. The transition should be to a lifestyle you choose that is full of purpose and highly pleasurable.

Unfortunately, I have often had clients that feel lost at this time of their life, especially after a mandatory retirement, either due to age, stage or performance. It’s as if you have been thrusted out, rejected with emotions frayed. While financial security can be an issue, I find that the deeper concern are issues surrounding a loss of identity. The sudden loss of power, position and authority, etc. can be impactful blows to the self-esteem.

No longer can you be identified by “what do you do.” I have found that for many, there is no clear view of their horizon, often marked by a lack of defined passions and a lack in a clarity of purpose. A change in circumstances, from a life event such as a mandatory or forced retirement, can also reveal a fear that you are no longer relevant when compared with the tech skills of Gen Z and Millennials.

All of this can result in a discounted sense of self-worth that needs attention. I use positive psychology, with its many attributes and benefits, to assist a client to thrive post retirement. I often find that when people have been shown the door because of age (mandatory retirement) or stage (peaked and no longer of value at their compensation and seniority level), the exit is traumatic. It is a moment that can feel like a significant personal loss that triggers an uncomfortable self-introspection. Contrast this with the person who steps down when they choose and because of their own decisions and priorities.

So slowly and carefully the self-identity needs to be reframed. Why? Because when our identity becomes fragile, for example due to retirement, divorce, etc., there can be a sense of a loss, especially when the change in identity was not planned nor welcome. These type of life events can trigger a selfintrospection focused on an internal desire to be more authentic or be one’s true self. Time spent internalizing through an introspection is important as a calibration of what you really want, both in terms of doing things that provide pleasure and providing a sense of purpose. These hedonistic and eudemonic experiences are crucial to your happiness. The absence of spending time thinking this through, of seeking input from the best minds available can lead to poor decisions. Almost like the challenges of dating on the rebound after a relationship ends, quickly jumping back into the workforce after a retirement, may not be satisfying. If you were not really happy at what you did before you retired and then you deny yourself the time to think through your passions and purpose in life to chart the next phase of your life, you are not permitting yourself to rewire and create your lifestyle of choice.

For anyone at this stage of adulthood, don’t you owe this to yourself?

Dr. Andrew S. Kane