Whenever anyone retired at the college where I taught, they got a piece of pottery that many of jokingly referred to as an urn. When I officially ‘retired,’ I also got a lovely piece of pottery that could easily pass as an urn. How many workplaces give you an urn at retirement? Probably not many do so, but I think it is a fitting symbol of a transition taking place.
Retirement Involves a Major Life Transition
For anyone who has read anything about retiring, you already know that it’s a big deal. Even if we’re anxious to ‘get out of Dodge’ as quickly as we can, retiring still involves a major life transition. Major transitions can last for months or even years. Having done a lot of reading before leaving my career, I did anticipate a transition period, but that didn’t prevent me from having to experience it.
The First Phase of the Transition Process
In general, transitions can be broken down into as few as three major phases. The first phase involves loss. No matter how eager we may be to move on, we are still giving up something when we leave the workplace. We lose familiar routines, a sense of accomplishment, regular interactions with co-workers, a regular paycheck with benefits, and a sense of identity. When we feel loss, it is normal to go through somewhat of a grieving period. We may feel sad or remorseful to some degree.
For me, I think I experienced a number of losses before I actually walked out the door for the last time. Many of my co-workers that I had known for years had already retired. Routines and structures changed every two or three years when new administrators came and went. We had a major tragedy on campus and other losses that shook many of us to the core. Even though I truly loved teaching, I felt like a cloud was lifted when I finally walked away.
Retirement literature suggests that losing a sense of identity is difficult for many people after they leave their careers. It is a loss that some people don’t know how to process. I wonder if that is more the case for men than it is for women? As a woman, I’ve always had to manage multiple roles. I don’t feel like I’ve really lost my identity. However, other women have told me that losing their workplace identity was difficult for them—especially at first.
The second transition phase involves a period of uncertainty or anxiety. For some people, this period doesn’t become apparent until they go through a ‘retirement honeymoon’ stage. I’ve known individuals who acted like they’d won the lottery for the first year after they retired. But eventually, they had to grabble with a degree of uncertainty. This is the period where new life routines aren’t clearly established, or our life direction or sense of purpose isn’t clear. This is the phase where it is easy to feel like we’re aimlessly moving along rather than living in a meaningful way.
Some experts warn against jumping into anything new to quickly after retiring. I think this is probably sound advice – like advising someone not to jump into a new relationship immediately after losing a relationship you’d had for years. However, what I chose to do was a continuation of work I’ve always done but with a different focus.
I will admit that I have periods of uncertainty. Sometimes I wake up in the middle of the night and ask myself why I am doing what I am doing. Other times, waves of anxiety wash over me. But then, those periods of uncertainty go away and are now becoming less frequent. I think what has helped me most is that I do know what I want my life to represent and what I want to leave when I am gone.
The last phase in the transition process is when we completely own our new life and our new beginning. I think it is like moving from a familiar neighborhood to a new neighborhood in a new city.
When we moved from an urban area near Portland to a rural area in Southern Oregon, it took months of adjusting to our new life. Nothing was familiar at first. Even in the small town of Roseburg with only a couple of major streets, it was easy to feel disoriented. Now life in Southern Oregon is normal for us. It takes time. Transitions always do!