Retirement: You are NOT losing an Identity, but gaining an Opportunity
Not too long ago I wrote about one of the challenges of getting older: Who am I now that I don’t have a business card? I described the loss inherent in giving up a life -long career and talked about exploring values, interests and meaning in order to find a new place in this unchartered territory. As I return to this issue, I am now more intrigued by the idea of continuity of identity rather than loss.
Recently, motivated by the new year, I decided to take a step back and think about all that I am today. Now that I have been out of the work world for a while, having given up my business card and my long- standing career three years ago, I’m more comfortable with my work/professional identity being a bit less salient. I no longer lead with, “I’m a vice president”; however, I still call myself a clinical psychologist. Once a psychologist, always a psychologist! It’s who I am, even if I don’t have a work life to go with it.
Who am I, now?
Who else am i? Jewish, woman, writer, volunteer, caring and compassionate, white, wife, friend, sister, mother, funny, responsible, bright, curious.
Which of these have stayed with me over the years? I’d say that the qualities have all remained a part of my sense of self and some of the roles have morphed, but what has really changed over the years is the saliency of the identities. Mother was central for so many years. As my son left for college, then went overseas, that identity crept more and more into the background. Never has it left me, though. As they say, once a mother, always a mother.
Being responsible, although a part of me that I always draw upon, was much more front and center when I had a full -time job. Today, I am a responsible committee member of the Board on which I serve and responsible in taking care of my home, but I no longer live and breathe responsibility as I did in my career working life. And I can tell you that this change comes with a big sigh of relief!
In the early days of the women’s movement, I was immersed in my identity as a woman. Just about all of my world was seen through a lens of my woman’s identity. I was keenly aware of the oppression of women, the lack of recognition, the struggle to have a voice. My goal was to find my voice and to be heard, to elevate women, their role and value, in whatever context I could. As the women’s movement concerns became more accepted in the mainstream, more integrated into our culture, that lens receded to some extent, although never leaving me all together. Being a woman is part of my core identity.
The salience of some of my identities are impacted by the experience of privilege. Susan Jones’ research on multiple identities highlights the impact of privilege, or lack thereof, on the strength of our many identities. I mentioned in the last paragraph that my identity as a woman waned as our culture began to change, with the obvious oppression of women moderating to some degree. However, its salience as an identity of mine also receded as my voice became stronger, as I became more privileged, as I went up the career ladder.
When anti-Semitism rears its ugly head, my Jewish identity changes shape, shifting from that of a spiritual/belief to that of a social identity. When I am more aware of the oppression of Jews world-wide, my identity as a Jew, culturally, becomes stronger.
Continuity and Compassion
I have always been caring and compassionate and assume that will be a big part of who I am until my death. These characteristics, along with my sense of humor, have shaped how I receive and respond to interactions and information. They are characteristics that most people would use to describe me, that others would say: this is who Eloise is.
So what changed in my identity as I gave up my long term career for this new phase of my life? Did my identity really change? Or did the salience of some identities shift?
Trade business card for a calling card
Marc Freedman, in The Big Shift, talks about a phase of life after career and before becoming “old”, when we have the opportunity and calling to shift our focus to something more meaningful, or creative. We may choose to dive into something we have always wanted to do or take a leap to explore something entirely new. Having thrown off the shackles of the “have to’s” that directed most of our adult life, with the bonus of years of experience and the lens of limited years ahead and the desire to leave a legacy, we now can contribute meaningfully in ways that we never dreamed of. The shift of the business card to the “calling” card captures the transformation from a career to a calling and adds a new identity to our list.
Amazingly, I can now take a deep breath. Having buried my business card, I can now comfortably say, “I’m a writer”. That is my calling. I can also add that I am supporting non-profits in various ways as a volunteer, wherein I find meaning. These are new identities acquired within this most recent life phase.
My work identity has changed. At this point, I can report that I am actually happy with that conversion. Rather than focusing on the loss, I can now fully embrace all that I have gained.
I am more than my business card.
And the rest of me, my core characteristics, my values, have stayed with me
I can rest easy. I’m still Eloise.