Loss Of Identity

Written by Sarah Davis

The immediate expectation which retirement challenges is that it is desirable and we should immediately be at ease with it. For some this will be the case; for others, less so. It is tedious to field the constant ‘you must be enjoying yourself!’ comment that your former colleagues and friends will make! Not having to go to work every day may be enjoyable in itself, but the loss of status, possibly also of financial independence, and loss of the friendships and activities that go with work, may not be.

The Oxford Social Issues Research Centre recently published a report based on interviews with a broad range of people, about what forms our social identity – our sense of belonging – for us. What they said about employment is that professional identity has played a key part in personal identity.

In a society where our social status is to a great extent measured by the work we do and, perhaps more important, the money we earn, it is little surprise that professional identity is an important locus of belonging for both men and women. It is, after all, often the first characteristic that people offer up when introducing themselves to others… we remain tied to the social significance of what we do for a living. Our sense of belonging in this context is greater than the affinity we feel with members of our extended families. (Seehttp://www.sirc.org/publik/belonging.shtml .)

What this report highlights for our retirement is that we are likely, in the short term at least, to lose a big chunk of what it is that defines us: in other words our sense of identify. The questions, who am I? what am I? where am I going? are big. Much of our sense of worth and our confidence came through work. Women especially – but also men who have carried the difficult combined ‘working parent’ role – may not have had time before to realise what else they can be; and that can lead to a real challenge to our ability to engage purposefully with the world after formal work.

For single people the losses may be especially great, as it may involve losing a network of working relationships that has substituted for family and other relationships. Being alone and experiencing silence for much of the day is great when it’s a choice, but not when it’s enforced.

It is not uncommon for new retirees to experience a kind of reactive depression, which can be overwhelming in the short term (though we should have confidence that this depression will go away). So it’s important to give oneself time to process the feelings we have when we give up our working life. We should treat it as a loss, recognise how it makes us feel, and the stages we move through, and give ourselves time to grieve, as well as consider what will help us to move on.

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