Does Your Job Still Define You?

A common theme found in studies of retirees is the psychological struggle that many experience letting go of their job. Immediately after retirement there is a sort of “honeymoon” during which the retiree experiences the euphoria of not having to get up or be anywhere to meet the demands of an employer. Later, after the thrill of nothing mandatory to do wears off, a “what have I done” attitude or even depression can arise, caused by the retiree’s detachment from work.

For so many people, being employed and having a job to do defines them. This is not always a negative concept, but it can be when you are not employed. Feeling needed by the world, being productive, interacting with others for a common goal, having somewhere to go – all of these can sustain us intellectually and emotionally. What replaces these feelings when we are not working? Golf? More TV time on the couch? Staring at your spouse? Walking the dog? Trolling around Facebook? I don’t think so.

I have been acutely aware of this issue for several years. There is no question that I have been substantially defined by my work. Heck – my name is on the office door. I also knew that I had other interests that I was not pursuing. More important, I knew that the time for me to leave work altogether was creeping ever closer. How would I handle this? Would I just let it happen and adjust on the fly? That didn’t sound like much of a plan for retirement success.

The first step I took was to restructure my work environment so that I was not compelled by external factors to work. If I was going to prepare myself for a “no work” retirement, I had to make time to do this. So, I created circumstances that would allow me to choose to when to work, how much to work, and even where to work. That made a huge difference in my mindset. Work became more of a voluntary activity and less of being “me.” I let go of many of the concerns I had about how our business was being managed. Others could do that job.

Second, I actively explored other activities: old and new hobbies, reading, learning, blogging, yoga, biking, kayaking, etc. That process continues.

Third, through my learning and meditating, I came to understand that none of these activities – least of all my job – define “me.” Indeed, I am changing my understanding of what “me” or “I” means. (More about that in another post.)

I believe I am making progress.

I can imagine this scenario happening even while I am still working:

I am at a social occasion and making small talk with someone I just met. I am asked the standard small talk question: “So what do you do?”

My first response, I hope, will say nothing about my work.

If you can spontaneously and comfortably tell a new¬†acquaintance¬†“what you do” without mentioning your job, I’d say you have accomplished something. I’s also say that you are that much closer to being able to retire without regret.

Are you still defined by your job?


  1. Brenda says

    Good article! I had to retire 2 years earlier than planned due to spinal damage and 3 surgeries at that time (7 total now). Since my medical issues were slow in getting worse, I was able (similar to your descriptive) to slowly “step back” and realize I was not my job.

    I was a law enforcement officer and pilot – both of which are “type A” personality jobs, and too one that we “live” vs just work at. Don’t get me wrong, parts of me still miss “the job” as I loved what I did, but I don’t miss the stress, the 24/7 availability, or the politics!!! By the time I retired contrary to many, I was accepting of my new “chapter” in life.

    I still oddly have dreams of ‘being at work, and working cases’, but day to day, I am pretty happy (spine crap and all) over all – no real regrets. I accomplished pretty much all I planned to and then some. I also remind myself (and others) that you don’t lose your experience or knowledge upon retirement – you’re still you, but now I have choices I didn’t have while working. I am on my schedule to do what *I* want, and when as well.

    I can be hard to remove oneself from the workforce (retire) especially if you “are still the job” and not the person. It actually took about 3-4 months before my conscious mind realized I was actually retired!! No more boss, no more “asking” if I could take leave days etc. That was a euphoric moment for sure! Lol!!! Another area that reminded me that my status was “retired” was checking into the hospital for a surgery. On their admission form it listed me as “unemployed.” I told the admin lady to change it to retired. Since I was under 65 (retired with 30 years at 48), she had to list me as unemployed! I told her to change it, as unemployed has a bit of a negative stigma to it, vs what I was “retired” was not only correct, but did not have the negative stigma. Weird huh? She did fix it, and with it fixed, (lol!!) some of the other admitting staff expressed jealousy at my reaching retirement. (G) I know, a small thing, but even I didn’t like that due to age (I was 49 then), did not like unemployed. In my whole career, I was truly unemployed for only 2 weeks, so….. Thanks again for the article as it confirmed to me that I sort of did change chapters slowly and was good with my last day of work. :)

    Happy retired baby boomer here!!!!!

  2. Brenda says

    Correction (last paragraph) “I can be hard to remove……” Should be “It can be hard to remove….” Sorry, bumble fingers!!

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