Identity Theft: 5 Ways For Career Women To Deal With The Loss Of Their Professional Identity In Retirement

by Evelyn Kalinosky on September 30, 2009

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woman-in-suit-sitting-crosslegged-floor1When 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. 

Evelyn is a catalyst and mentor for business women in midlife transition. She specializes in working with women age 40 forward who are ready to claim – or reclaim – their Sacred Capital. Her passion is to create a new paradigm in how we think about aging, specifically, how we think about women aging.

Her award-winning Inner Affluence Blog received top honors in 2011 and 2012 as “Best Coaching Blog” by the School of Coaching Mastery, and she was named “1 of 101 Women Bloggers to Watch in 2011″ by WE Magazine for Women. In addition to being a coach and mentor, Evelyn is a speaker and published poet.

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  • Eileen Williams

    Sage advice for a major life transition. However, I think that older women become more creative– when a woman can no longer bear children, it is as if her mind engages in new ways. Women especially can use these talents to enhance their lives at retirement, try new things, write a book or take up painting. Whatever gets your personal juices flowing and, as you put it, take some time to explore and renew!

  • Evelyn

    Very good point about women becoming more creative as they grow older, Eileen. There are so many opportunities to renew and reclaim those aspects of the self that may have been suppressed during their “working” life. Now, at or near retirement, women are able to create a whole new Act 3!

  • Kathie M Thomas

    I’m already going through the transition. My husband an I consider ourselves to be in ‘pre-retirement’ and are shifting to our retirement home within the month. He’s been mountain bike riding seriously for the past few years and I’ve taken up photography.

    As our working lives phase down or out our ‘hobbies and interests’ have been increasing and I know we’ll pursue those things more as we get older and stop working corporately.

    I don’t see myself as losing an identity but rather having a changing one.

  • Evelyn

    I like that, Kathie: “I don’t see myself as losing an identity, but rather having a changing one.” That’s the truly great part – we don’t have to remain the same. The only thing we can count on is change, and it’s great to ride that wave and be part of that change internally.

  • Cynthia

    I took a sabbatical twelve years ago to ponder a career transition in my early 40s. The bad news: the loss of professional identity was disorienting and took me much longer than I anticipated to find that new direction — tried lots of avenues and possibilities via volunteering, part-time work, courses, etc. The good news: I just graduated from Harvard with a master’s degree and have begun a major new chapter in my life in my mid-fifties with a new occupation (journalism) and a move back to city life (after being in suburbia for 10+ years) in Boston. Such major shifts are not easy and not always on our timetable. They can however be full of growth and open doors to new people, projects, and provide positive challenges and enjoyment along with the uncertainty, loneliness, and discouragement. One thing our current society teaches us: nothing is permanent and utter security is not attainable. (God knows journalism is not a secure profession). My overall advice — learn to surf the waves!

  • Evelyn

    Congratulations! You so eloquently explained how disorienting it can be for a woman to lose her professional identity after being so tied to it for many years. The fact that you were able to navigate through the waves of change, loss, uncertainty, and re-examination, and come out on the other side of the storm with a renewed purpose and passion is wonderful. You are an inspiration! I wish you much success in your new career. How exciting that now, in your mid 50s, you are beginning a brand new chapter in your life. That’s what happens when we don’t let our chronological age define us. Rock on, my lady!

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