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Why it may be difficult transitioning from employee to ‘volunteer’

Q. After 40 years and at age 75, I just retired from an organization where I had a very significant role which I enjoyed; one of impact, prestige and influence that required 150 percent of my time. Recently, I responded “yes” to an invitation to assist with a significant project. On the Zoom call with the team, I was referred to as a “volunteer” and was taken aback. I felt very uncomfortable since I always had a title. What is my problem with being identified as a “volunteer?” Many thanks. B.R.

Dear B.R.

Your shock and discomfort are understandable.

Let’s begin with a definition of volunteering. It means giving your time, knowledge and abilities to help others without financial compensation, most often through a nonprofit organization. It’s a service to your community. By simple definition, volunteering is inherently a good thing.

In your situation, time may be the key issue. Finding one’s identity, purpose or role post-primary career can take some time. This is particularly the case if the work role consumed one’s time, energy, intellect, creativity, social relationships, soul and more. A title of doctor, professor or minister suggests what a person might do; serving as a volunteer is a generalized description of doing noble deeds with no pay. Being referred to as a volunteer soon after you left your position may seem uncomfortable if you feel a role is being defined for you before you define one for yourself. While on the topic of transitions, here are some thoughts that might be helpful.

Point No. 1: Acknowledge a challenging transition.

It is important to acknowledge the transition from work that provided a high level of satisfaction and sense of identity — to retirement with an ill-defined role can be a challenge. Without outside interests, it may even be more difficult. Time demands often preclude thinking about the non-financial aspects of retirement; it’s a journey that is easy to postpone.

Point No. 2: Realize that some loss may occur as part of the transition from work to retirement.

One of the biggest areas of adjustment when leaving a significant position is the loss of identity. Our society often judges the worth of individuals by how much they earn as well as by their title. In traditional retirement, often there is no earned income and the previous title disappears.

Point No. 3: Volunteering has physical and mental health benefits and is a cost savings to society.

Fortunately, there are gains. Doing good for others is also doing good for ourselves. Research studies find that volunteering makes you happier and is associated with less depression and an increase in life satisfaction and well-being. It reduces stress, keeps one mentally stimulated, increasing self-confidence and sense of purpose. A Carnegie Mellon study found a correlation between volunteering 200 hours a year and lower blood pressure. Volunteering provides opportunities to meet new people, develop lasting relationships and learn something new. Americorps, a federally supported program for volunteering, reports that the value of older adults’ volunteering to the U.S. economy is $77 billion.

Point No. 4: Volunteering is a badge of honor.

Volunteering in the U.S. has been a unique part of our history and culture and considered a hallmark of American civic life, playing a greater role here than in other countries. Volunteers also are a proud bunch that are recognized and admired. President H.W. Bush formally recognized more than 1000 volunteers as “points of light” acknowledging and encouraging volunteerism.

Point No. 5: Volunteers are everywhere a job needs to be done for the betterment of society.

Volunteers commit their talents in a broad array of venues. They are at hospitals, animal shelters, nursing homes, food pantries, the Red Cross, Salvation Army, homeless shelters, schools, faith-based institutions and vaccine centers to name a few.

And one final, timely point. Volunteering provides the opportunity to increase our understanding of others who are different from us. We can bring people together who we otherwise would not meet and learn from those with different social and economic backgrounds, from different racial and religious groups as well as those from different generations.

Thank you, B.R., for your good question. In time, the term volunteer may not bother you as you develop your new chapter in life. Enjoy the journey, stay safe and well and be kind to yourself and others.

Helen Dennis is a nationally recognized leader on issues of aging, employment and the new retirement with academic, corporate and nonprofit experience. Contact Helen with your questions and comments at Visit Helen at and follow her on


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