When Brenda retired from her high-level corporate job at the age of 57, she didn’t know what to do with herself. She got up each morning at 6:00 a.m., as she had done for the past 26 years, put on a suit, ate a quick breakfast, and slipped out of the house as she’d always done. Only now she had nowhere to go. For the first few weeks she wandered around aimlessly, not able to talk to anyone. Starbucks became her home-away-from-home as she spent hours each day at a table in the corner by the window watching the world go by around her.
A member of the Baby Boomer generation (women born between 1946–1964) Brenda is part of a tribe of women who were the first to enter the professional world in large numbers, and are the first to encounter the hazards surrounding retirement. Defining themselves largely through their careers, they have challenged traditional models at every stage of their lives, and are now being challenged by their own negative stereotypes about retirement.
The decision to retire means the end of a significant chapter in the lives of professional women who often hold a strong attachment to the social status and identity they derived from their careers. A recent Ohio State University study reported that professional women may have a tougher time adjusting to retirement than do women who hold jobs customarily thought of as non-professional. According to the study, large numbers of women who worked in professional occupations reported feeling a sense of loss once they retired: a loss of their corporate identities, and a feeling of reduction in their social status, as well as a loss of the daily social interaction that work provided.
In addition to the loss of their corporate identity, many women believed that over time they were forced to give up much of their self in order to be successful in the corporate or professional work environment. In some corporate cultures, pure unbridled creativity is considered a negative, and as a result women sometimes temper their creativity in order to not be seen as lacking business acuity. Spirituality and a desire to contribute often get suppressed as well. This creates an imbalance and a loss of confidence for many women as they come to the end of their career and aren’t sure who they really are anymore. They need to reclaim other dimensions of the self they lost in order to move forward. Left unchecked, these feelings can spiral into depression, disconnectedness, and a sense of isolation.
To deal with these feelings of loss, professional women can focus on these 5 key action strategies:
1. Grieve: For women who identify themselves primarily through their corporate or professional identity, they experience a type of “death” when they retire. They need time to mourn the loss of their corporate identity, but also the losses within the self that have gone underground to survive or succeed in the corporate world. Women need to be able to experience this loss, and their family and friends need to support them as they go through the various stages of grieving.
2. Excavate: Once women go through the grieving process they can then begin to excavate those parts of the self that were suppressed or diminished over the years due to the demands of their career environment. This unearthing of long dormant parts of themselves can then be reintegrated, creating an opportunity for more balance.
3. Explore: In addition to uncovering long-dormant aspects of their personalities, women need to explore new self-images and new self-identities. They need to question key truths about themselves: Is this who I really am? Is this really true for me? How can I redefine this next stage of my life? They need to question the very idea of how they develop a new identity without their job, their title, and business contacts. It’s not an either/or proposition, and women can choose to continue their professional work even into retirement or start out in a whole new direction.
4. Network: Loss of social interactions can be devastating for women who have relied largely on their work environment for such daily connections. It’s critical to build new networks following retirement. Women can develop these networks through volunteering, remaining connected to the professional organizations they belonged to prior to their retirement, and through creative outlets such as book clubs, writing groups, yoga or other areas of interest where women can build new relationships.
5. Exit: The traditional retirement no longer applies in today’s world. There are numerous alternatives available for how and when women choose to retire and what that retirement looks like. Women can:
Create an exit strategy that allows for gradual lessening of professional responsibilities over several years leading to retirement.
Take a sabbatical – women can step off the fast track to rethink life and the direction they want to take.
Become a consultant or work part-time rather than leaving their current profession completely to allow for development of other facets of self.
Balance work and creative play.
Combine work and volunteer opportunities.
Engage in a “working retirement.” More and more women are seeing employment as a lifetime commitment. It’s likely that women do and will continue to identify themselves more closely with their work roles and will want to continue to work in some capacity.