I’ve written this post twice already, but never published it because I can’t seem to get the message clear and concise. This will be my last attempt, and it’s being published regardless of how it turns out!
This post is in response to the people who have emailed me telling me that they are bored in retirement, and also to the people who have proclaimed that I will be bored in retirement.
The Retirement Identity-Gap
When a person retires from a career, whether it’s a relatively short 13 year career (as it will be for me), or a long 50 year career, there are two gaps in their lives that are left with a void. And these gaps need to be filled in order to achieve personal fulfillment. The first gap, the “time gap,” is the obvious one, and the that one most people talk about. It’s also the easiest gap to fill. 40-50 hours per week that were previously spent at a job now needs to be replaced with other activities and, usually, human interaction. Common practices to fill this gap include volunteering, travelling, reading, visiting friends, finding new hobbies, and expanding old hobbies. Of course, some people fill it with daytime TV too, and that’s fine if it works for you.
But there’s a second gap, the “identity gap”, and it’s the one very few people talk about or even recognize.
After a lengthy career, many people come to the point where they primarily identify themselves with the work that they do. Think about it this way: If you meet someone new at a party, are they more likely to ask you what you do for a living, or are they more likely to ask you what your favorite hobbies are?
This identity gap is also what brings famous athletes back from retirement so many times. They talk about the need for competition and the love of the game. When asked about why he would return from retirement again, these are the things Brett Favre and Michael Jordan talked about. But I think they were only telling half the truth. The part they don’t talk about is that their entire identity was as a star athlete, and when they left that behind there was a huge gap to fill.
And the same is true for long-time doctors, engineers, civil servants, or any other long-time professional. It’s very difficult to spend 40+ hours per week for your entire adult life and not come to at least partially identify yourself as your profession. Of course, some people do this more than others. When I was young, and working 80 hours per week at an engineering job I loved, I was on the far end of this spectrum. I was an engineer first, and everything else a distant second. Now, as I’ve found other identities in being a father & a husband (among other things), my identification as an engineer is minuscule at best (which leads the second half of this article, down below)
But wherever you are on the spectrum, it’s possible to fill the identity gap in retirement once you recognize and accept that the gap exists. But it’s harder than filling the “time gap,” because it takes more than a simple hobby to fill this gap. It has to be something you can once again identify yourself with. It has to be something that takes significant time, effort, and passion – just like a successful career.
Consider some contrasts between filling a time-gap, and filling the identity-gap:
Going to the gym and running on a treadmill for an hour everyday may get you in shape and kill an hour each day, and it may be something you really enjoy, but this will likely only fill the time-gap. Running on a treadmill each day probably won’t result in you identify yourself as a runner. On the other hand, if you join a running group, train with the group, drink beers with them after a tough training run, run epic races with them, sharing the highs and the lows of competition – now you’re coming closer to filling the identity-gap.
As another example, let’s say you decide to volunteer for a few hours each week at your local hospital. You check in, you change some sheets and restock some shelves, then you check out. This is a good way to spend a few hours, and will likely leave you feeling better about yourself when you leave your shift. But like the running example, you likely won’t have achieved the goal of identifying with your position and filling the identity-gap. Now, on the other hand, let’s say that in retirement you decide to do several shifts a week, you become friends with some of the staff, and you learn the names and stories of regular patients sharing successful procedures and consoling them during their low moments. This, I would argue, is far more likely to fill the identity gap.
These are two very simple examples, but it can be spread to just about any activities that you’re passionate amount.
For me, my plan in retirement is to deepen my identity in the things I’m passionate about: Fatherhood, Being a good husband, writing and spreading the message of the Brave New Life, investing, running, and biking. There will NOT be shortage of activities I can identify with.
The Pre-Retirement Idenity-Gap
The pre-retirement identity-gap is the exact same problem described above, but from a different angle. This gap exists when someone doesn’t identify with their career, but continues to work 40, 50, or more hours per week at their job. These are people “stuck” at a place that they don’t identify with, spending their time, life-energy, and creative energy on something they don’t particularly care about, while their passions take second fiddle. This describes my situation, and many other people on the journey to financial independence. The effect of the “pre-retirement identity-gap” is the same effect as the “retirement identity-gap,” just with a different cause.
I’m a good example, so I’ll dissect my own situation. The things I’m passionate about (parenthood, writing, running, etc) get sloppy seconds, where as the majority of my waking time and energy goes to my job. I’d love to write more on this site, to spend more time with my kids, to start some more entrepreneurial projects, to run more, etc. But too often I lack the time and energy to do these things. Meanwhile, my energy is at a job I’ve mentally checked out of.
As I see it, there are two solutions for this. The first is to retire as early as possible, making room for your passions. Because I’m so close to retirement (9 months), this is the path I’m following. Unfortunately, this is not possible for many people (at least until they get rich quick).
But there’s a second option: switch careers into something you are passionate about and identify with. Now, I don’t mean for this to be some sort of feel-good cliche you see on so many “lifestyle design” blogs, but the concept is valid. If you are stuck in a career that traps you into an pre-retirement identity-gap, and you are far from financial independence, this is the only path that can solve your problem.
As a victim of the identity-gap conundrum, I know it can be a struggle. I hope this article helps identify and offer some suggestions to everyone suffering from both retirement and pre-retirement identity gaps. Good luck!