Retirement = Work Divorce

Problem: when someone experiences a break up or divorce in a long term relationship, it can seem as though a serious severing has happened, not only within the relationship but also internally, in how our identity has been constructed in and around the dynamics we've maintained for so long.  The notion that leaving a long time career or business is very similar to that and in a lot of ways constitutes a divorce of sorts from your work is not a novel idea of mine.  The aspect I'll be diving into in this post is the feeling of self worth, value, or productivity post the "Freedom from Work" transition and how that severing can be a really challenging event.  This post explores ways to prepare for and move through this experience and come out healthier, better, and perhaps more whole on the other side.

Before I describe a few solutions and methods to explore, lets look at a few examples to illustrate the experience:

Example 1: Jim has been working as a tool and die maker his community for over 30 years.  His dad was a tool and die maker, so were his 2 brothers, and his grandfather.  The work is hard but a worthy calling as tools and dies have been a critical element of the countries manufacturing excellence since the very start and Jim is proud of that work he and his family have done for so long.  He's getting into his upper 60's and he feels his bodies wear and tear from work for about a decade now.  He's also knows he has a sizeable retirement fund waiting for him and he and his wife will live quite comfortably in their next stage of life. For the past 5 years, however, Jim's been thinking more and more about who he'll be after he retires but more particularly, he worries about not feeling valuable if he doesn't see the fruits of his labors as he has on a daily basis for the past 30 years.  He works with his hands, solves problems, and see's the resulting products come out of their processes and he gets a lot of deep satisfaction from that.  How will he be of value to anyone when (he thinks in his mind) he's lounging around and not producing anything anymore?

Example 2: Helen has been running her own company as an event planner for 15 years and prior to that worked in similar roles in the corporate world for another 20.  She really loves her work, loves her team she's built and maintained for the past 15 years, and revels in the satisfaction she see's in her clients and their event goers as well.  She feels its a bit like a long term symphony in the making and pulling off an event can be magical. She does, however, feel the tug of the 4 grandchildren she has now and utterly adores the time she gets to be with them.  Her husband passed away 5 years ago and so it's just her now.  She knows she'll feel great being a major part of her families lives but knows that is no where near a full time endeavor and will have lots of "downtime" as well. She wonders if she'll feel the rush and satisfaction of the planning, coordination, and finally the execution of major events like hers in her next stage or if she'll feel the satisfaction of a job well done and the boost in feelings of self-worth that comes along with that.


This issue is extensive and by no means am I proclaiming my bullet point solutions below even scratch the surface.  I hope they will expand on a base of knowledge you may already have, perhaps cement known methods, or maybe provide some direction on where to look next. 

  • Start new places of value creation in your life before you exit your career or business.  Don't go cold turkey exit and try to start something after that.  There is a lot wrapped up in transitioning or "divorcing" from work and the odds of successful transferring or creating new ways to feel productive and value in the midst of all the rest of it are quite low in my opinion.  Map your capacities/capabilities, what excites/energies you, and best serves the community or world, into new endeavors.  They don't have to be monumental to derive feelings of self-worth and value creation.  Perhaps you transfer your coordination and project planning background to organizing and establishing a local Community Garden space and help to set up a small non-profit to manage and fund it for the future? Perhaps its a establishing local clean-up crew that loves to get outside, exercise, and contribute to being stewards of your community environment?  The possibilities are endless and vastly easier to conjure up and implement while you're still working in your current place vs. in the midst of your work divorce.  Take small leaps before the big one!
  • Start a 2nd career or business.  To many this might seem daunting but there is an entire industry devoted to helping do just that.  See my ORGANIZATIONS page for more.
  • Join a professional society such as Rotary International or similar groups where you derive social belonging (a critical human need throughout life but particularly critical when you don't have the social aspects of your work life around anymore), you can work on a variety of meaningful local community projects, and contribute to international causes as well.  I am a part of the Sumner, WA Rotary chapter and I've found it a great place for me in my current age and work life but also to hear and see what it does for a wide variety of community stakeholders lives as well.
  • Seek out mentoring opportunities to share your experience and wisdom with new generations.  There is a lot to be said about the close bonds that a long term mentor - mentee relationship can have and the mutually improved and ongoing feelings of self-worth that can be derived from them.  I've experienced this myself and continue to do so.
  •  Explore "group sharing" opportunities as highlighted in the book Tribe by Sebastian Junger.  While this book is particular to veterans of war and other similar experiences, the basic premise holds that we all want to belong to a group, share in our experiences in deep ways, and do so on a consistent basis. There are many types of social groups out there but also ones that can focus particularly on sharing our experiences in open and safe environments.