The Retirement Identity Gap

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!

34 Responses to The Retirement Identity Gap

  1. Yabusame says:

    I switched careers 9 months ago. I don’t quite identify with my role just yet, but I do identify with the idea of working with people now as being important to me.

  2. Executioner says:

    Excellent new perspective on things. I’ve heard a lot about the time gap but significantly less about the identity gap. You explained it rather concisely.

    I’ve never had any hesitation about imagining that my retired life would be significantly better than my current life of full-time employment. I always attributed that to a personality trait of mine which allows me (perhaps?) to be able to fill up free time better than most people. My point of view was that people who would rather work than not work had a significant defect which prevented them from taking hold of their own lives and making the most of freedom from personal obligations. But on further reflection, I think you’ve hit on something here. Despite working 13 years for my own employer, I have never identified myself as a _____. Rather, I am a guy who has a lot of interests who happens to work full-time for ____ as a ____. Significant difference in point of view.

    I suspect that there is a sizeable portion of the population who, presented with a windfall of billions of dollars, would continue to work full-time because that is their identity. This mindset seems completely foreign to me, but I suppose I can respect it.

  3. Executioner says:

    PS: Your “twince” should be “twice” — opening sentence.

  4. Dom says:

    Wow! The identity gap is not something I’ve ever considered before. I always presumed it would be easy to slide straight into being “retired”.

    I definitely have the job role as my identity thing going on, not sure if this is totally a bad thing, as I was looking at continuing my occupation during retirement – just working a lot less hours.

    Not sure how my outlook will change, especially as I will be getting married and having a baby next year 😀

    I am looking forward to the challenges that are on there way though!

    It would definitely be a good problem to have too much time on my hands :)


    • It would definitely be a good problem to have too much time on my hands

      Just be careful about how you approach this philosophy. I get a lot of emails from people that approach retirement with that mantra, only to find themselves bored and/or depressed. That’s actually the motive for writing this post.

      • greg says:

        yeah – thanks for writing this! I have been considering just this thing since I am on track to be financially independent by 30; thankfully I have a few years to make sure I figure this out for myself. This post is definitely a good addition to my list of things to consider.

        The way I’ve started thinking about “having too much free time” is essentially the same as “living the examined life” or, in more common terms, “choosing between knowledge and bliss”.

        I currently have all sorts of things including two new mini-careers to try out, but without the stress of having to succeed and put up with crap. However, these inclinations are a bit more transient than I’d hope to have by the time I’m actually faced with the opportunity to choose …

  5. krantcents says:

    I am 4.5 years away from retirement (again) and working at both identities. I started volunteering, blogging and traveling. I expect to add more to my list as I get closer. I am very concerned about feeling adrift so I am working on my choices now.

  6. Shawn says:

    The identity gap is real. I know this from being off work for periods of time longer than a vacation and going back feeling happier about the return than predicted. Maybe even because I missed the job because it DID identify me. (That feeling never lasts long)

    I like the way you use applied passion as a qualifier (or maybe quantifier)

    I like to think I have the trait that Executioner mentions but I agree that a degree of dedication has to be demonstrated to achieve fulfillment and satisfaction from even an enjoyable activity. Even during my working career I can say that I have thrown myself at an activity enough to truly call it an identity. Family, coaching, triathlete come to mind.

    • Knowing you as limited as I do, Shawn, I agree that “family, coaching, triathlete” are legitimately identifying activities for you. Just as “family, writing, and ultra-marathoning” are identifying positions for me. But even then, I’ve never felt I was giving them the time and life-energy I wanted to, simply because the “job” required a minimum amount of time (regardless of how much I was willing to slack).

      And then I succumbed to the “pre-retirement identity-gap” where time didn’t allow for me to focus on all those goals and others, because of a job that gave me no identity, and yet took so much time.

      I think you’re on your way to the right balance though… Following you from you first forum post on ERE til now, I’m anxious to see how it works out.

      Hopefully, you’ll eventually write your own blog and share your story, because I want all the details. :)

      • shawn says:

        Your initial message was very clear. I unintentionally understated your focal point with the mention of my three identities while working. How much faster could I have done an IM if not having to commit 40 hours per week to a job? How much more individual instruction could I have given the boys on the baseball team if I had not already “given” all day? How much better would I be at algebra at 8:30 at night if not have been at work all day? And finally, what toll does all the juggling take on me? I have a wordpress account now but dont have the guts to put anything out there yet.

  7. Excellent post, BNL.

    I agree with others. The time-gap is discussed much more frequently than the identity-gap. And, I would also agree this is unfortunate because the identity-gap can be much more difficult to fill.

    I’m in a somewhat precarious situation as I’m on the path to FI, but I’m still 7-10 years away. I’m also in a situation similar to you, as I don’t identify with my career at all. It’s basically a place I go to that sucks my soul away for 10 hours a day. At this point, it would be a bad investment to try and gain an education or training into something else that might be more enjoyable as my road to FI is still relatively short (compared to most).

    The other unfortunate thing is that even if I were to choose working longer, but doing something more enjoyable, I can’t think of anything I’d enjoy enough to spend 40-50 hours a week of my time doing. I mean I love working out, but if I had to do it for 50 hours a week I’d be fed up pretty quickly.

    I can only be thankful I started as early as I did, because life is too precious and short to be miserable.

    Best wishes!

    • No doubt, with 7-10 years to go, you’re in a rough spot of the “pre-retirement identity-gap.” Then again, I’ve been following your blog for awhile now, and I’ve seen your passion for studying investments and I’d argue that if you’re truly into that, then 40-50 hours per week to learn the ins and outs of stock analysis, fundamentals, etc. would be time enjoyed.

      Anyways, I know you took a ‘hiatus’ on blogging, and I didn’t realize you were back until I saw this comment. Glad to see you’re back, I’ll be checking out your site regularly again.

  8. Brian says:

    I think you did a good job of identifying the issues here. One of the reasons I think that early retirement is an option for us is that I have never identified strongly with any of my ‘jobs’. Instead, I find myself identifying myself in broader roles. For example, I used to consider myself a ‘sport and event planner’. Now, I consider myself more of a ‘business professional and manager’ in my current role. In both cases, there are a LOT of things I would like to do on my own terms that would use these skills – as long as I feel like I’m adding value and creating something that uses skills I have, then to me, that is my identity.

    Early retirement is a ways off yet, but I look forward to the freedom of choice it will bring – there will be lots to do.

  9. Mirella says:

    I really enjoyed this very well articulated article and you’re touching on something so important here.
    I’m 42 more working days (but who’s counting)away from ending my ten year career as a Maths teacher. I have enough saved to go on a mini-retirement (as Tim Ferriss says) of five years. If I stayed in teaching for another 5 years, I’d save enough to retire completely. But I just can’t do it, it’s sucking my soul away.
    What do you think about the mini-retirement idea (I’m 32 yrs) as a means of having time to find something to identify with and be passionate about? Or should it be supplemented with part-time work of a non-identity nature in case the mini-retirement finds you at the other end no wiser than you began?

    • Mirella –

      I think the mini-retirement idea is a great idea for those that meet the following criteria:

      1. You’re self-motivated, and preferably have a streak of entrepreneurship in you.

      2. You have a job or potential job opportunities with an easy re-entry after your mini-retirement

      As a teacher, I would think you meet the second criteria (although I’m generalizing, I’m not completely clear on the opportunities available).

      But 5 years is a long time. If you go 5 years and haven’t discovered some sort of passionate work that can make some side money, then it’s probably time to return to a “real job” anyways. Particularly when you say that you’re only 5 years away from being able to retire completely, I see that as a sign that you don’t need a whole lot of supplementary income to go with your passive income, which opens you up to a lot of low-pay high-reward opportunities out there.

  10. Great post. I love your blog and always email your posts to my hubby and my friend.
    On the subject at hand: I have been on what can be termed semi-retirement, in a foreign country. Its been 3 years now. I have a choice to go back to my job after 4 years (2013) or retire permanently. I loved my job, but I hated its requirements, like too much international travel away from my family, my hands-off approach to kids activities, not taking enough time to explore my passions. In the 4 years, I enrolled for a masters in real estate (my passion), I blogged more, I invested more, my head was clearer, I baked/cooked and developed my own cosmetic range…(not for sale yet). I enjoy hosting my son’s friends everytime I feel generous with my time and space, I groom my kids’ hair… I earned less but I invested more than I ever thought possible. And I spent a great deal of time with family. My income streams are more diversified. I love my life. If I go back to work, it will be for 6 to 12 months. I will take the decision then. But my retired life will definitely be more exciting.

  11. Kellen says:

    I asked a bunch of people at work once what they would do if they won the lottery – I assumed I was asking them what dream job/volunteering/lifestyle they would choose. Instead, most of them said they’d take a vacation, and then come back to work, since they would “get bored” after “watching TV all day” for a few weeks.

    Mostly I just figured that they somehow thought they had to give this as an answer, because I was a work colleague, and they wanted to pretend like work was that important to them. But apparently that’s a common response??

    I had never thought of the pre-retirement-identity gap before, but that makes a lot of sense. I’m in a demanding “career” type job where you are expected to put your career first, and I do, and I enjoy a lot of it, but I also would like to retire early, and some days it’s hard to sit there thinking “I just have to make this job my priority for the next ten years and then I’ll be free!”

  12. John says:

    Can I start by saying that I really enjoy your thoughts. While reading this post, I had a rare moment where I felt a newfound understanding of myself. I have changed professions twice and both times returned to ‘civil servant’ functions in some capacity after some time away. I have as late as today, been considering my predisposition to crave this type of role. I think, after reading your blog post, that I have identified with this role at some stage early in my career and don’t feel fulfilled unless I am identifying with a function at least as significant. Thanks for the insight.

    John –

  13. jennypenny says:

    It’s easier to accept the identity work gives you. Figuring out your true identity is hard, and I think many people fear what they will find if they try. What if you realize your partner doesn’t really fit in with your new self? Or your family? Or your friends? Or it challenges your religious beliefs? Or it makes you question the paths you’ve chosen? I think some people keep working to avoid the self-examination that comes with retirement. If you’re too busy working, you have no time for regrets.

    • I couldn’t agree more.

      The same is true for making any conscious decisions that are against the grain. It forces you to question why you’re making the decision, how will people react, who’s affected and how, and what it says about you.

      Even in the realm of people seeking financial independence or early retirement, I see many of these people doing it because it sounds sexy and rebellious (or it’s the cool thing all the bloggers are promoting), but they haven’t considered all the impacts and outcomes you’ve listed above (and more).

      Having 2 years between deciding to retire and when I’ll actually retire has been a rollercoaster of emotions and, believe it or not, almost none of it involves finances.

  14. Van says:

    One of the better articulated articles I’ve read in a while. I’ve never heard of the problem articulated this way, but you are right on the money.

  15. Jonathan says:

    Good post, I like the separation of identity and time… a topic that I’ve been thinking about as well as the prospect of “retirement” nears. More and more, I think a semi-retirement is in order where I can work part-time and fill both the time and identity gaps. With kids in school, being able to take off for an entire two months a year in the summer but working part-time the rest of the year is my goal. This won’t work for all careers, but as I meet more retirees, many of them now have this sort of down-shift period.

  16. My husband will be 62 in January, I’m two years younger. So as you can imagine, this is a topic I think about a lot.

    He is fortunate in that he enjoys his job and works in an industry where ageism isn’t an issue. I’m hoping that his company will be amenable to cutting back his hours in a few years (or sooner) , but I’m not sure how he’d feel about that. There’s that identity issue you brought up. He would definitely miss the social aspect of work. He likes having lunch with colleagues.

    Here in Silicon Valley we know many people who never do retire. They keep working not because they need the money but because they like what they do and perhaps they can’t see themselves doing anything else. So that’s an option too. There’s no law that says you have to retire.

    I work from home in my own businesses and I can’t imagine ever giving that up.

  17. People should consider taking some extra time to adjust to the identity gap. If it’s possible, you should take 3 months to a year sabbatical from your job to see if retirement is for you. Or at least to get used to the idea.
    I took several 3 months sabbaticals when I was working and the last one transitioned into full retirement. It was a pretty easy transition for me because my time is filled up with taking care or our kid. I also identified myself less and less with my old job over the years so it wasn’t hard to let go there either. It helped that I have a blog and other online activities already set up before I retired.

  18. […] and reading his stuff. This week, he writes about something I’ve seen first hand in my family- the retirement identity gap. It’s a problem I’m concerned about facing myself, in 30 years or so. What about you? Is your […]

  19. […] The retirement identity gap – Brave New Life […]

  20. […] really enjoyed reading this post over at Brave New Life which points out an interesting fact about retiring early: you have to actually pick your new […]

  21. DaveSunDown says:

    This is a great post. You’re keying in on something that, most days of retirement, is much more important than how much money you have to spend.
    Perhaps a good way to think of it is ‘whose time will you be spending in retirement’? Obviously, it’s your time, but which ‘you’? Parent? Coach? Spouse? Gardener? Traveller? Volunteer? Model train maker? Neighbour?
    Each of us has multiple personnas and in retirement, we can choose which ones to spend our time on.
    I’ve created a reading list for those who need help in redefining themselves at this important fork in life’s road:

  22. […] The opportunities are endless.  Find something you enjoy doing, and think of ways to monetize it.  If you truly enjoy it, and your goals are only to make nano-business type money, then you’ll find a path to make money, as I’ve done.  And, once you’ve retired, nano-businesses are also a great way to fill the other retirement gap. […]

  23. […] of my favourite philosophical bloggers was back at it this week. Brave New Life looked at The Retirement Identity Gap as a way of answering the question “what are you going to do with all your time when you […]

  24. I am two years away from retirement and still I search my identity. Whenever I think about my life after retirement my soul get shivers. In my view point life after leaving everything is not easy for me because at that time I had nothing to do. But I am ready for all challenges.

  25. Jason Beck says:

    This is something that Stephen Covey discusses in the 7 Habits of Highly Effective People. For many, you have a “career” center, and lesser “spouse” or “family” centers. If you instead have a principle center, it doesn’t matter what job you have, or what you’re doing at this moment, because who you are isn’t externally identified. “I am a person that works hard to achieve, to accomplish what each of my roles require of me.” That is something that won’t change much when you go from “career” to “retirement” – you’ll just pour your heart into whatever new things you do.

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