Harvard Business Review: How Retirement Can Change Your Identity

Studies show that people who are able to afford a full retirement – and who will also be healthy enough to enjoy it – are generally much happier in retirement since their working life is behind them, and they can instead spend their time doing the things they enjoy doing.

However, when a critical component of a person’s identity – their work – is suddenly no longer a part of their personal equation, it requires a retiree to restructure their lives and bridge their former, working identity with their new, retired identity.

This is according to researchers from the Harvard Business School (HBS), Questrom School of Business, Bentley University and MIT Sloan School of Management. Their methodology included interviews with 120 professionals across three different companies nationwide.

Teresa Amabile, one of the researchers from Harvard Business School who worked on the study, spoke with Harvard Business Review’s IdeaCast podcast to discuss the findings of the research. Amabile herself is nearing retirement age, which she says factored into her own interest on the topic.

While the transition into a happy retirement can happen quickly for some, Amabile says that it can sometimes feel disarming for people who are not sure how they should be spending their time.

“I think it’s hard partly because a lot of our fantasizing has to do with finances, frankly,” Amabile said on the podcast. “I think people fantasize about not having the pressure of work, not having the stress of work, but they also fantasize about not having to worry about money all the time. You’ve got your nest egg, and I don’t think people realize that [they’ve] been doing something with most of [their] waking hours for decades, and [they’re] going to have to do something else during all those hours [after they retire].”

This accounts for the first major process she and her fellow researchers observe: restructuring their new life in retirement.

“Life structure is defined as the major contexts of your life – literally the geographical, physical spaces where you spend your time, the major activities that you engage in, [and] the most important relationships that you have in your life,” she said.

When you stop working, a lot of those things are no longer present in your daily life, which results in a common sentiment that Amabile said she and her comrades encountered among the people they interviewed: they don’t miss the work, but they miss the people.

“I think that most of us don’t realize how anchoring and important those work relationships are,” Amabile said.

When a retiree is trying to figure out how they will redefine themselves when a “chunk” of their former life is now gone, Amabile describes what she and her fellow researchers call “identity bridging,” the second major process after life restructuring. Identity bridging is defines as maintaining or somehow enhancing an important aspect of oneself that existed before retirement.

“One of the most common things we’ve seen is that people will have had an avocation that they enjoyed a pre-retirement, that they get really engaged in much more strongly after retirement,” Amabile said.

She offered one scenario she encountered during her research that illustrated this concept: a retiree who said that being a father to his three children was always important to him. Upon retirement, his youngest daughter still lived in the house, and they began being able to spend much more time together now that his working life was behind him.

“He became much more engaged with her after retiring,” Amabile explained. “He helped her with her schoolwork. They did projects together. So that really enriched his life. And it bridged that father identity, which had been a small part of his identity, small but important before, and it now occupied a very big piece of his identity.”

Listen to the full 26-minute podcast at Harvard Business Review.

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