Women and Retirement – Letting go of Professional Identity

By Megan Giles: Retirement Transition Consultant

Given that Baby Boomer women are the first generation, as a whole, to be experiencing retirement directly rather than indirectly through their husband or partner, it should not be surprising that there is a lack of research into women’s experience of retirement. Disappointing - yes, but not surprising. I know that there is an Australian research project underway seeking to understand how women are coping with retirement and what it means for their identity, but rather than wait I wanted to see what information and data was out there right now.

Image: An empty desk and letting go of professional identity

I recently came across a study from the early 2000s1 which focused on the experience of women transitioning into retirement. It specifically explored the journeys of a group of professional women (their titles included doctors, lawyers, executives and academic professors) who had contributed a minimum of 10 years continuous service immediately prior to retirement.

For the most part, the women interviewed in this study described the transition into retirement as a positive experience, however, it was not without its challenges. I wanted to share these with you as a means of helping your prepare for your retirement. As they say, forewarned is forearmed and by recognising the difficulties that could arise, you take steps now to prevent them eventuating.

What did this group of women find challenging during the transition into retirement?

  • The reduced social network – no-one to share lunch with or the ready access to people (colleagues)
  • The lack of professional challenges – e.g. they were no longer being called upon to resolve someone’s problem or create an innovative solution
  • A lack of direction or focus - activities such as volunteering were reported to be enjoyable but did not necessarily satisfy a meaningful goal
  • Confronting stereotypes - a number of the women interviewed reported that in a volunteer capacity they were not seen to be as capable as paid employees

This last point I find particularly interesting. One of the women interviewed gave the example that as a volunteer she couldn’t possibility be capable of developing a brochure for an organisation, despite significant marketing experience during her career! At what point do one’s skills expire – is it as soon as one hands in their ID badge for the last time? I suspect not! Actions in response to stereotypes might be subtle but they can be very powerful. It’s something we need to work to change.

Coming back to an earlier point it is important to recognise that the overarching experience of retirement was positive. What made the transition to retirement easier?

  • Finding a new way to be of service, for example one woman helped her son start a new business
  • The newly discovered freedom and choice – being able to spend time as one chooses
  • The recognition that they had survived (or thrived) through other life changes such as childbirth, marriage, or relocating the family and therefore are capable of the retirement transition also

Work is an important component of our lives – it’s where we achieve, create bonds, and share our wins and our challenges. It also consumes the majority of our waking hours, and so it’s not surprising that the transition can be viewed with a sense of trepidation. But recognising the potential challenges, understanding what they might mean for you, and then taking action can help to ensure that you create a retirement for yourself that is fulfilling, meaningful and gets you out of bed each day!

Price, C.A. (2000). Women and retirement: relinquishing professional identity, Journal of Aging Studies, 14(1), pp 81-101.

Feeling a little apprehensive about retirement, know you need to do some planning but just can’t find the time? I understand. Between work, caring for your family and keeping on top of your ‘to do’ list, life is busy. So with that in mind I have created the Bite Sized Retirement Transition Video Series. Six practical, short & sweet videos (each no more than 3 minutes!) which will enable you to take action and successfully navigate the transition into retirement.

You can watch then when you find those precious spare minutes or even on the bus on you way to work!

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