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Retirement: Will You Lose Your Identity or Expand It?

By Karen Spencer March 01, 2023 Mindset

The day when I retired and gave back my office keys, downloaded all my course documents, and met with Human Resources had me questioning my decision.

Was I Really Ready to Retire?

My last week of teaching in college was a roller coaster of emotions. It was filled with lots of well-wishers, lovely gifts, sweet cards, get-togethers, balloons and a few tears.

I clearly remember a young professor giving me a big hug. “Karen,” she smiled, “I’m so happy for you. You have done such great things for this college, and you worked so hard all these years. Now you deserve to just make time for yourself; take a break, rest, relax and enjoy.”

Did that young woman mean take a break, as in rest on the bench for a bit, or did she mean take a break, as in head to the locker room and turn in my uniform?

So… Was I done? Did my retirement signify I had reached my full potential and was now headed for the downhill slope? What a sobering thought, and quite frankly, a depressing one.

It seemed that with each conversation I had regarding my retirement I was asked the same question.

What Will You Do Now?

My response was pretty much the same. “My plan is to spend more time with my children and grand babies, write, take walks… and my husband thinks I need to raise chickens.”

I vividly remember setting in my hard metal folding chair out on the football field on my final attendance for graduation night. I thought about my students taking their next step toward an exciting career and gaining a new identity. Here I was retiring, and I felt like I was losing mine.

So, is this as good as it gets, I wondered. Is my life as fulfilling as it’s going to be? Should I just appreciate that it had been a good ride, and be grateful and satisfied for my experience in a career I loved? Why was I even thinking about this now? I had retired.

I Was Struggling with Being Branded with That Awful Word – Retired

I don’t know about you, but I hate the word ‘retired’. It sounds so old… and tired. Not only tired… but re-tired. And, depending on your accent, it can sound like you’re saying ‘retard’ or ‘retreat’.

Let me ask you: do these synonyms for the word ‘retirement’ sound like something that helps us embrace this transition? ‘Withdrawal, retreat, surrender, pullout, disengagement, recoil, shrinking, disentanglement…?’

Seriously, who wants that? It sounds like we are abandoning the ship!

I think my husband saw the signs of my tsunami coming, so he bought me a book to try and stem the tide, How to Retire Happy, Wild and Free by Ernie Zelenski. In the first chapter, there is a little cartoon character lounging in his rocking chair, reading a book about retirement, and the caption says, “The only major problem with retirement is that it gives you more time to read about the problem of retirement. If you can avoid this trap, you have it made.”

I did not feel I had it made! And I soon learned I was not alone. I found there were others experiencing some negativity with this ‘retirement’ business.

Ernest Hemingway Wrote, “Retirement Is the Ugliest Word in the Language”

And Rama. Sami Natarajan, an essayist, described the day he announced his retirement, “All my ‘strengths’ were stripped off me by some unknown force. I became a wimp in the eyes of the world.”

Spanish cellist Pablo Casals was quite clear on his disdain for the term as well, “To retire is the beginning of death.”

And although I admit Casals sounds a bit overly dramatic, there is actually some research that backs up his statement. Yep… you are more likely to die when you retire. I know… that’s scary!

I began searching for someone who might offer some sage advice on this new seismic shift in my life. I asked my newly retired cousin about his thoughts on retirement. He said, “I don’t tell anyone I am retired.”

“Really,” I responded. “Why don’t you tell people?”

“Because,” he said, “I found out pretty quickly that when I mention I am retired, it is like I become invisible… I just don’t get the same respect I once did.”

Holy cow! Is that true?

A good friend of mine suggested I read a book by Jane Pauley, Your Life Calling; Reimagining the Rest of Your Life. Pauley shares how she spent the first year of retirement lying on her couch. She filled her days by making up a list of all the things she could do now that she was retired. As the lonely days slowly and painfully passed, she recalled, her list of possibilities grew.

Then one day her son called her up and told her, “Mom, you know that list of ideas you keep working on? Well, I think you have collected enough good ideas. Now it’s time for you to pick one and do something with it!”

I could so relate to Pauley’s experience. I too was spending way too much time lying on the couch, reading about retirement and jotting down ideas. I recalled the professor’s encouragement for me to just rest.

Then one day, while mindlessly perusing the internet, this headline piqued my interest:

“Want a Happier, More Fulfilling Retirement? Try This Japanese Concept”

Did you know the Japanese culture doesn’t even have a word for retirement? I loved hearing about that. Instead, they have a term called ikigai. Ikigai (ee-key-guy): iki, means “alive” or “life,” and gai, means “benefit” or “worth.”

When combined, it means “that which gives your life worth, meaning, or purpose…. why you get up in the morning.”

Other synonyms for this Japanese term are worthiness, fruitfulness, effectiveness. Now, that is quite a big difference from the West’s retirement synonym words: withdrawal, retreat, pull out, surrender.

I learned that, in regards to the kai portion of the term, it is important to note that there is a strong connotation with “challenge.” Therefore, if one is seeking their ikigai, it requires a certain amount of effort.

Oh… so no more lounging? No more just resting and relaxing? It was necessary to put effort into finding my next path?

It was time for me to get up and off my couch, change my mindset and raise my standards.

Rather than focusing on my fear of losing my identity, I would instead need to put my energy into expanding it.

In Other Words: It Was Time to Get to Work!

Are you, or someone you know, struggling with retirement? It is not always an easy transition.

The following precepts and questions helped me to find my new path.

  1. Don’t let others define me.
  2. Do not buy into the notion that retirement is synonymous with retreating, withdrawing, shrinking and/or disappearing.
  3. I get to choose my conviction and dreams.
  4. New opportunities come along at any age, be ready for them.
  5. When I stop learning and growing, I start dying.
  6. Make ‘gratitude’ my lens in life. Each day is a gift filled with blessings and opportunities.
  1. Bringing more value to others, brings more purpose to my life.
  2. Serving not only benefits others, but bring benefits to me as well. Benefits like happiness, health and longevity.

Here Are Some Questions to Journal About:

  • What is my vision for the next year of my life?
  • Will I choose to live an intentional life?
  • What matters to me?
  • What are my convictions? What are my non-negotiables?
  • How will I continue to grow?
  • What was something I was passionate about when I was younger?
  • What are my strengths and my gifts?
  • What new areas would I like to pursue?
  • What will I regret not having tried or done? (Think about my ‘what ifs’ or ‘one day I wills’)
  • What do I love?
  • What gives me joy? How can I share that joy?
  • What can I do to support and encourage others?
  • What new opportunities do I see in front of me?

I am pleased to report that it wasn’t long before I found my next calling. And I hope to motivate others who feel they have lost their identity, or feel invisible, to step up and step out. You are never too old to make a difference. And who knows… as my granddaughter once reminded me… we might change the world.

Oh, and by the way… I still hate the word ‘retirement.”

Let’s Have a Conversation:

What does retirement mean to you? How do you define it? What list of things have you created that have put meaning to your life after retirement?

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My hubby and l retired together taking early retirement.We also upped sticks and moved 200 miles away at the same time.
Well out of our comfort zone.
It was the best decision we ever made we made it forced us to make new friends,explore the area where we lived, like a permenant holiday.Joined clubs, took up new hobbies found we had even more in common than we thought.
Got fitter and took up walking in the Yorkshire countryside.
I have never got the being defined by your job vibe.We could not wait yo enter this phase of our life ,we have never been more busier doing things we love to do and not running to the beat of a bosses drum!


Congratulations on expanding your identity, your health and your happiness. It sounds like you and your hubby were aligned in your mindset and willingness to take the plunge together.


Like reading a map incorrectly, I relied on where I had been more than where I was going.

A 40+ year career in a field that had no longer became enjoyable got me to the “I want out” point. Burnout to be more precise.

I just wanted out with no regard to what is next. A HUGE MISTAKE. In the same way, I had no idea that my spouse’s view on retirement was just take it easy.

I have to say this – I feel like I am just “waiting to die”. Despite being healthy but not having any plans.

This article resinates with me in a kinder way that I have stated herein.

Thank you


Your comments touched my heart and reminded me the real challenges many of us face in retirement. I urge you to find your way…a step at a time….a day at a time. There is something more for you out there!


Excellent article, thank you! I too hate the word retire so now I just don’t use it. The concept of moving from something and the moving to something is real and it needs a little bit of thought, followed by action. So my personal tweaks needed were these: I work the odd day here and there, by choice, on a casual basis so that means I have more freedom and more flexibility. I teach dance once a fortnight and volunteer in a local hospice. I have started to call this part of my life my Golden Years of freedom and choice. I firmly believe age is ‘only a number’ and choose to be a trailblazer rather than be typecast. I am very grateful that I am healthy and have a good purposeful life . It’s what you make it!


Thank you for your comments. You know, I think that the word ‘consultant’ grew out of people not wanting to use the R word. Ha! I love how you frame your world in terms of ‘freedom and choice’. And your choice to be a trailblazer is the perfect example of expanding your identity! What a beautiful way to share some of your precious time with others…dance and volunteering at hospice…those are both proven through research to support your health and happiness.


My retirement came earlier (by 4 years) than I planned due to health issues. Still – I LOVED saying I was retire. It was something so desired by my peers and I got to quit answering to anyone else. Best advice given to me by a well respected co-worker – go easy on yourself that first year after retirement. I can see why. Things I hadn’t noticed while working started crying out to me to fix up/clean up/re-design/etc. My husband described it as “spinning in a circle”. Remembering Sue’s words I put a halt to those things driving me. It seemed so hard in the beginning yet I look back and I’m so grateful I took that year to think about my future.


When I would ask people how I was supposed to navigate the retirement transition in my life they would say…’oh, you will figure it out’! That only irritated me. I wanted a proven formula and a perfect plan…But I now see that just taking our time, being gentle with ourselves and looking for opportunities in front of us will….yes…help us figure it out. By the way, I hope your health issues have improved. All the best to you.

The Author

Karen is a retired college professor, a Certified Health Coach, a Brain Health Coach, a writer, a speaker and a teacher. Her mission is to educate, inspire and influence women 55 and older to step up, dream big and become healthier, happier, and more fulfilled.

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