A couple of weeks ago there was an article in the weekend colour supplement that caught my eye. I’m not sure why it is, but I seem to be reading less and less of the papers these days. There is a larger percentage of writing that falls into the either, ‘yep, seen that know all about it, don’t want to read any more’ or the plain, ‘not interested in that it’s not for me (often it feels like it was written for younger people, not difficult I know)’. But this article looked like it might actually have some relevance to my current retired status and to the question posed in the title of this blog). The article was entitled, It was like a bereavement: life after leaving a big job. The article told the stories of people who had lost or been forced or chosen to retire from ‘important’ jobs and how they were coping with that loss. The clue is in the title. These were people who had been politicians and voted out of office or who simply found the job not to be what they wanted; senior managers in accountancy company who retired early; retired lord chief justice; a person who had taken voluntary redundancy from her position as assistant director of children’s services at the age of 57 and one woman who gave up being an eye surgeon at 37 to take a design course (slightly different this last one).
The common theme among most of them was the feeling of loss, in some cases a loss of the ‘fripperies’ as one person put it, the luxuries, the perks, the staff to whom you delegate tasks even something as menial (in one case) as pressing the buttons in the lift. The loss of a packed diary, now empty, but, most often, a loss of identity and self-esteem. As one person put it, when I retired early at 58, I hadn’t prepared for retirement. He spent the first few months sorting out his elderly father’s care arrangements but then, “suddenly I felt I’d fallen off this cliff. That was when I felt the most unsettling / depressing…. I didn’t feel I was achieving anything constructive. I was used to a set of things where you felt you’d done a lot and helped a lot of people, and when you took that away, you just felt like you weren’t someone, (you were) worthless.” Another of the interviewees said, “you soon discover just how much your work and your identity are entwined.” Yet another talks of giving up her job (she was a cabinet minister) as like a bereavement. “It was in stages. To begin with you’re in shock. It diminishes your feeling of self.”
And the above is just a part of the article reporting on the experiences of people who had a job, then found they hadn’t got one either as a surprise or something they brought on themselves or something they knew was coming but didn’t prepare for. In all cases the ensuing experiences were painful. And my point is that for many of us, when we retire, even in a planned way, we have these same experiences. Admittedly I’ve chosen from the article the parts that struck a chord with me but I think there’s some common ground for other retired people. I was struck by the chap who talked about feeling you’d ‘done a lot and helped a lot of people, and when you took that away’ you felt worthless.
I really don’t know whether this is a feeling exclusive to people in the helping professions, probably not, but I do know that a lot of my own self-esteem came from the belief that you were helping people solve some of their problems. I’m sure that people who retired from working in B&Q or who work for insurance companies or who service my central heating boiler have the same feeling even if it’s a bit more in the category of getting things done and the sense of achievement that comes with this. And then, at a stroke, it’s gone and, if you’re not thoughtful about how your retirement shapes up, you can have that sense of being ‘worthless’ and all the more so if you were one of those people (as I was) whose ‘work and identity were entwined’.
So to avoid this feeling of worthlessness when you retire, particularly if you enjoyed your job and / or believed you were doing useful things, a person needs to be quite precise about how they organise (and I think this is the right word, i.e. don’t just leave it to chance) their retirement. For each retired person the form this organisation takes will, of course, vary. If you need to supplement your pension then it, in some ways, perversely, this makes the structure of your retirement a lot easier. Needs must and all that. For me what was important was that I developed a new identity, one that was not work-related but was task-completion oriented, to replace the ‘old one’. In my case the self-esteem part of retirement came from feeling that I had chosen my task completion areas wisely, i.e. areas that were important to me and are in-line with my values (another important aspect of a fulfilling retirement and about which I have written in the past) – writing a bi-weekly blog (I’m heading towards 500 blogs in the last four years), learning to play new areas of music (jazz) – and that there was a strong element of learning new skills running alongside these choices. I’m not suggesting that the above is the sum total of what it takes to achieve contentment in your retirement but they are, in my humble opinion, a strong foundation for any additional activities.
So there we are. When I first noticed the title of the above article I wondered whether I could even be bothered to read it (given I’m reading less and less about the world out there). Did I have any remaining interest in reading about people struggling with retirement in whatever form? Turns out I did. But would I have the motivation to write another blog about the challenges of retirement a whole four years after I actually retired? Turns out I have. And furthermore I have that sense of achievement I need.