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Retirement is just a new opportunity

Last week, L.S., who loved her work and achieved national recognition is struggling with the loss of identity in her retirement. Teaching engineers and managers from one-hour lectures to full five days at a time, she noted her sense of self-worth was in direct response to the adulation from her attendees. Without teaching and the consistent feedback she doubted her value. She asks, “How does one deal with such a profound loss of identity?”

A loss of identity in a society where we are defined by our work can be a challenge especially if the position yielded a bit of power, influence and made a difference. It becomes even more difficult if we felt passionate about the work, achieved recognition and identified strongly with the role.

Identity has a lot to do with validation. In our work world, validation is external and frequently comes in the form of a title, a responsible position, salary and from perks such as a car, expense accounts and being invited to luxurious retreats. Validation also comes from just making a difference and knowing you had a role in creating change.

During retirement, one of the biggest changes is the source of our validation from which we derive value. The shift from a full-time highly-charged career to “whatever is next” suggests that we may need to diminish the need for external validation and place equal or greater value on internal validation, the feelings that come from within.

We may ask ourselves questions such as “Who am I? What is my role? What do I stand for?”

Jerry Sedlar and Rick Miners, authors of “Don’t Retire — Rewire!” (2007, Alpha Books) outline a four-step process that can help affirm or re-establish an identity in the new life stage.

1 See retirement as a new opportunity.

2 Identify your personal motivators or drivers, i.e., what makes you tick. Examples that serve as motivators are authority, belonging, creativity, prestige, recognition and accomplishment. Consider using the drivers as a guide in selecting what you will do with your time.

3 Recognize the activities you want to pursue now.

4 Develop an action plan for engaging new activities that start to fulfill your vision.

Timing is important. One approach is to have a plan before you retire. The other is to take some time and think about what’s next. It may be an opportunity to explore, take some risks and see this time as one of adventure, experimentation and most of all — freedom. Much depends on knowing yourself and what goes into making a day a wonderful day — a reason to get up in the morning and to smile at the end of the day.

Let’s take the perspective of creating an external identity by giving back. Here is just one example of a new organization with a timely mission.

Generation to Generation Los Angeles (Gen2Gen LA) has launched an inter-generational initiative to actively engage older, culturally diverse 50-plus adults to work with children (0–8 years old) in underserved communities across Los Angeles County. About 25 percent (220,000) of L.A. County children under 6 years old are living in poverty. Gen2Gen LA is working in partnership with local community agencies to recruit older adults as volunteers or paid staff to help prepare these children for success in elementary school focusing on their education and social readiness. Five communities are part of the first stage of this project: Pacoima, East Los Angeles — Boyle Heights/Lincoln Heights, South Los Angeles, South Bay-San Pedro and Southeast Los Angeles. See and go to “opportunities.” This type of work can bring meaning, validation and a sense of personal identity while making a difference in these children’s lives.

L.S., thank you for your question. Perhaps engaging in this generation initiative would tap your teaching skills, providing a different kind of experience working with those at the other end of the age spectrum. Consider giving equal time to defining yourself from within, answering the question “Who am I?” Some say that the later years provide the opportunity “to be” rather than “to do.” I think both can happen at the same time. Best wishes in finding the right combination that works for you.

Send emails to Helen Dennis at, or go to

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