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Reinventing yourself in retirement

Illustration of a retiree

Illustration by: Keith Negley

We hear a lot about identity theft these days. But worry as we might about hackers looting our bank accounts and laying waste to our credit scores, the biggest identity thief of them all might reside much closer to home. I refer, of course, to the usual subject of this column, retirement.

For people whose identities are wrapped up in their careers, retirement can be discombobulating. In fact, whether or not retirees felt a loss of identity proved to be one of the strongest predictors of how likely they were to be satisfied in retirement, according to a Consumer Reports National Research Center survey last fall. People who said that loss of identity was a problem had a mere 22 percent probability of being highly satisfied in retirement, compared with a 76 percent likelihood for those who said it hadn’t.* So what should those of us who are planning for retirement do to prepare? And how can those who are already retired build a new identity they’ll be happy with? Think outside the cubicle. "Many people are so involved in their work that they’re too busy even to think about what they want to do in retirement," notes Nancy Schlossberg, professor emerita at the University of Maryland and author of "Revitalizing Retirement" (American Psychological Association, 2009). Those who stay home raising children may have the same problem once the kids move on.

Dave Corbett, the founder of NewDirections, a Boston-based career and post-career counseling firm, works mostly with senior executives and other professionals. He says they sometimes have the toughest transition.

So, along with thinking about how you’re going to pay for retirement, it’s useful to consider how you intend to enjoy it. You don’t have to hit the ground running on the day you retire, but you don’t want to hit it with a splat either.

Probe your past. Corbett urges clients to write a résumé that ends rather than begins with the day they got their first job. In his book "Portfolio Life: The New Path to Work, Purpose and Passion After 50" (Jossey-Bass, 2006), coauthored with Richard Higgins, he points out that our early enthusiasms sometimes hold clues to what we’d enjoy doing in the years ahead.

Or look at it from the flip side: "Think about some of your regrets about things you haven’t done," Schlossberg says. "Are those things you could do in retirement?" Hit the road. If relocation is likely to figure in your reinvention, Schlossberg suggests using your vacation time to explore as many areas as possible. Once you’ve narrowed the list, make some return trips, ideally at different times of year. A vibrant summer resort town, for example, can have a less-appealing vibe when it’s under eight feet of snow.

Reach out to others. Bounce your ideas off people who know you well. Corbett suggests creating an informal board of advisers, including appropriate family members. I’d recommend consulting a person or two who has retired recently. Nobody knows what the transition is like better than someone who’s done it.

Also ask yourself whom you plan to pal around with after you retire. Bear in mind that your spouse, if you have one, might love you dearly but still not crave your companionship 24/7. "You need to build relationships, constituencies," Corbett says. "They may be around your profession or around your other interests." In a related finding from our survey, retirees who hadn’t made friendships that lasted beyond their working years put that high on the list of regrets. So now might be a good time to cultivate some new friends or reconnect with old ones.

Become an intern again. Many retirees find meaning in volunteer work, and without them countless worthy projects would never happen. But don’t feel limited to the usual organizations. If you’re interested in working for a particular company or learning about a certain line of work, consider offering yourself as an unpaid intern for a month or two, Schlossberg suggests. Once they get over the surprise, they might find a spot for you.

Know that it can take time. One of Schlossberg’s exercises involves designing a "business card" for your retired self. "Now that you’re no longer a roofer or a professor, what would you put on it?" she asks. If you’re like many people, it might take a while to fill in the blank. And that’s fine, too. "I think it’s like graduating from high school or college," Schlossberg says. "You have a certain portion of people who know exactly what they want to do, but for more of us it’s a matter of trial and error." * Retired respondents were categorized as having identity issues if they agreed with any of these statements: "since I stopped working, my life seems to lack meaning and purpose"; "since I stopped working, people don’t seem to respect me as much as before"; or "I don’t really know who I am without my job."

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