Who do you want to be when you grow up?

Lots of retirement coaches talk about finishing work with a sense of completion and satisfaction. The last chapter of the career is now written and the author is collecting well-deserved royalties. This is the ideal but not the reality for lots of folks. Many retirees enter retirement because of a health problem or a pink slip. But no matter how the transition starts, identity can be a problem.

“So what do you do?”

Often when we meet new people, that question of “What do you do?” comes up fairly quickly. How does a retiree answer that and still keep the conversation going? How do retirees answer that question for themselves now that they are no longer in the working world?

Counselors tell me that this issue of identity is the most common reason for retirees seeking help. “I just don’t feel like myself.” People can feel lost, directionless, at sea with this new reality of retirement. Work gives us a time and space structure. We know where we are to be and at what time. That is lost when we set our own schedules. We need to find our new pictures of what our days and weeks look like now.

We also need to find our own sense of purpose and engagement. Why are we getting up in the morning? What do we do during the day to feel useful and involved? We need to figure out what we want to do when we grow up this time. We need an answer to that question, “So what do you do?”

That is why almost half of us go back to some form of employment. Some start small businesses, do consulting work, or get a part-time or even another full-time job. We seek the encore career rather than volunteer work or hobbies, for example. Mind you, many of us need to do that to keep the bills paid. Others, however, seek employment to feel better about themselves with a more positive sense of self-worth. Others get a rude awakening as a job can be harder to find at 55 plus. Much is written about the older worker these days with some of it is very positive and some that point out the ugly reality of ageism in the workplace.

Related article: Are you planning to work in retirement?

Making a new introduction

In my book on retirement readiness, IT’S YOUR TIME, I suggest a format for introducing yourself as a retiree so that you have an answer that gives a chance for a conversation. It goes like this….”I am retired now but I used to______________________ and now I___________________________. I really enjoy ________________________ and look forward to______________. “

That can give four different options for further questions or comments. A conversation has somewhere to go at that point. Finding oneself in the middle of a work-related conversation can feel like a rejection of the non-member but hang in and try again. Do not take it too personally. Figure out what you have retired to and present that in an enthusiastic and positive way. Let them know who you are now. Somebody has to be a role model!

So, who do you want to be when you grow up in retirement? What are you looking forward to as a retiree?


  1. Gary Stortz

    Great post! I always read them but rarely do I comment. As a male, 8-10 years from retirement this thought has crossed my mind. Who will I become in retirement? Or will I truly retire. Thanks for the article.

  2. Donna McCaw

    Thanks, Gary. with 8-10 years before retiring you have the time to cultivate you retirement garden so that you have something to harvest once you are retired. Start thinking outside the work box now to avoid the Wiley Coyote hanging in mid-air syndrome later on.

  3. Ruth Cunningham

    Thanks so much for putting forth information that is so needed, as people face retirement at different ages under differing circumstances… Finding myself retired in my 30’s because of health issues, life became a completely different sort of challenge than the retirement I’d been led to expect. Identity is a major problem and learning to reinvent oneself becomes critical learning. It is so much easier to get out ahead of the potential pitfalls–begin well before retirement, to get to know ourselves as our own first life-partner. From my premise that “Life is Learning” a fulfilling new path emerged, and any information that can help people establish their worth and value beyond only their career identity, will serve them well ’till life’s end.

    Thanks very much for an insightful article.

    Best Regards,
    Ruth Cunningham

    • Donna McCaw

      Thanks Ruth. Exactly right. Sometimes having a break in the career path is a good learning experience despite what it feels like at the time. I had a health wake up call in my 30’s as well and it got me to thinking and then acting.

Leave a reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked*