Retirement Doesn't Have to Sap Your Self-Esteem

In our work-oriented society, it's all to easy to think about retirement as the end of your value. People are so wrapped up in their work identities that the prospect of losing that identity fills us with dread. Yes, there is the relaxation of the retirement lifestyle and the pleasure of staying out of the workaday fray, but as with any ending, the transition to non-working status can be tough for many in the 50-plus years of life.

University of Cincinnati's Heather Vough and colleagues (2015) proposed that the ending of a career is psychologically challenging because it forces us "off script." Think of it this way. You have a daily script that dictates much of what you do from your routine of household chores to the 9 to 5 hours when you're at work. You know what you're supposed to be doing at any given time of day.

When you retire, or leave your place of employment, you have to rewrite that script. At a deeper level, you must also try to formulate an interpretation of this life transition. Vough and her team describe this as "sensemaking:" "the process through which individuals create explanations for experiences" (p. 416). Retirement becomes a part of your life narrative, or the story you write about the events in your own personal history.

In the case of the retirement, story the narrative is shaped by the reasons you left your job. Were you forced to retire, did you do so voluntarily, or were there ways in which you felt no longer needed?

The University of Cincinnati researchers drew on the interviews of 48 Baby Boom Canadian retirees all employed in companies in the private sector, spanning mid-level managers to CEOs. From these interviews, Vough and her team identified these 6 career-ending narratives that varied in how they impacted the individual's sense of self.

1. Following a script: These individuals used their age or length of employment as triggers to the retirement decision.

2. Identifying windows: A new project was coming up, and the individual felt it was a good time to leave.

3. Cashing out: The retiree was offered an incentive or wanted to get out before the company reorganized.

4. Being discarded: These individuals felt that they were no longer needed or were actually laid off.

5. Becoming disillusioned: Feeling that the company's values were going downhill, these individuals decided it was time to leave.

6. Having an epiphany: Through illness, death of a close family member, or other major life event, these individuals felt that there were other things in life more important than the job.

Which path fits you? If you chose Paths 1 and 2, you're able to maintain or enhance your self-esteem because there was a specific reason you chose to retire. Path 3 also allows you to maintain a more-or-less positive self-view especially if that incentive was a strong one.

Starting with Path 4, the situation becomes more ominous. Unlike Paths 1-3, you can not attribute the decision to a voluntary choice so the only way you can preserve self-esteem is by denigrating the organization.

If you follow Paths 5 and 6, in contrast, you undergo the most change in your sense of self, what Vaugh et al. call "identity restructuring." Seeing the company as going in an opposite direction from your own (Path 5) engages you in values clarification. Seeing your life as having meaning outside of wor (Path 6) alters your overall sense of life goals.

Any life ending, whether one you choose or one imposed upon you, can give you the opportunity for new self-understanding. With the ending in the past, you have the opportunity to find fulfillment in those openings that yet await you. Retirement may be the best thing that's ever happened to you, and the transition that stimulated you the most to redefining your values, sense of self, and purpose in life.

Vough, H. C., Bataille, C. D., Noh, S. C., & Lee, M. D. (2015). Going off script: How managers make sense of the ending of their careers. Journal Of Management Studies, 52(3), 414-440. doi:10.1111/joms.12126