No matter why you’re not working—retirement, career pause, caregiving—there’s no one-size-fits-all plan for this phase of life after work. And that’s a very good thing!
Much of the dialogue around retirement planning is focused on financial preparedness and health care. While these are important areas to consider, life after work encompasses so much more—and retirement isn’t the only reason for such a transition. It’s a shift in focus and a season to explore other things. It’s a time to reevaluate priorities and try something new. It’s an opportunity for personal growth that requires a different kind of planning.
So, what activities would you pursue once you’ve taken a step back from work?
Want to keep working, just not in a full-time, career-level capacity—or chase an entrepreneurial venture you’ve been dreaming about for years? Want to volunteer, serve on an advisory board or hang out with the grandkids or your adult children more often? Travel cross-country or be a tourist in your own town? Do all or none of the above?
The short and simple answer: whatever you want! The post-work life is yours to customize—as unique as the work and life experiences you’ve had thus far. And the adventure begins with finding your identity beyond the workplace.
Discovering Who You Are When You’re Not Working
“Doing whatever you want” sounds easy, but the reality is that many people find this life transition daunting. The habits you’ve developed over decades of work are deeply ingrained—and that carries with it advantages and challenges.
Maybe you didn’t always love your job and looked forward to the day you’d be free of long commutes and high-stress project deadlines. Or maybe you loved the routine of grabbing a coffee on your way to the office and thrived on a cycle of completing projects.
Maybe you struggled to balance home life and work life, so the prospect of being home all day is overwhelming. Or maybe you’re grateful for the chance to shift your focus and put family first.
Everyone will feel differently based on how they’ve lived, where they’ve worked and what they hope to do next. Your feelings may change frequently too, in the years approaching when work ends and in the ones that follow. Because for all the headlines, polls and advertisements touting an “ideal retirement age,” it’s still just a number—and it’s driven by data that can’t account for the diverse spectrum of life circumstances, personalities and preferences.
In this practical guide, we’ll offer tips and resources for maximizing your life-after-work years. We’ll also show you the ways people are embracing this season and making it their own.
Five Ways to Embrace Life After Work
A big part of establishing your identity outside of your “lifetime career persona” is embracing an individualized post-work journey and really making it your own. Consider these tips from three experts in the field.
#1: Break Free of Old Habits and Beliefs
You’ve had a lifetime of working hard, meeting goals, saving money and doing for others. You’ve made it through by developing certain coping mechanisms and believing things that were told to you. Now is the time to unlearn some of what you have been taught, says Lynell Ross, a Certified Health and Wellness Coach and Life Coach.
“This doesn’t mean you can’t still work at something you choose, or volunteer or work on projects in your home or community, but you can do so in a relaxed manner, without pushing yourself so hard,” Ross says.
“Take time to be alone with yourself and journal about what makes you feel good, what brings you joy and what feels right to you,” Ross says. “Write down what your highest values are and know that now you have the time to live those values.”
A Quick Guide to Exploring Your Post-Work Identity
Need good ways to start breaking free of these old thought patterns? First, examine and evaluate your life, says Ross, who offers the following guidelines.
On a scale of 1 to 10, how do you rate your life satisfaction in each of these areas?
- Home environment
- Fun and recreation
- Personal growth
- Work (volunteer or a new endeavor)
Next up, reflect on the question of who you are outside of work and what you value most. Consider these prompts from Ross to inspire your reflections.
- If you have always longed for adventure and travel, then go see the world.
- If you love your family, then spend more time with them.
- If there has been a creative endeavor that made you happy such as painting, quilting or fly fishing but you didn’t have time, realize that now you do.
- You may want to start a business about giving back that will launch you in a whole new direction based on what you feel is right rather than how much money you earn.
- You may simply want to kick back and enjoy the life you’ve built.
#2: Celebrate Your Life Stage
In developmental psychology one of the most well-known models for describing life stages is from Erik Erikson. “At each stage, we have specific goals and tasks, and when we master these tasks at the appropriate age, we’re considered ‘mature,'” says Jaimie Eckert, a writer who’s pursuing her PhD in Intercultural Studies.
“It’s a time of significant reflection on life, and if the past is filled with regrets, there may be a sense of despair,” says Eckert.
To work past any life regrets or disappointments you may be feeling in this life stage, it’s best to start with self-compassion. Everyone makes mistakes and that’s ok. It’s also important to recognize that these reflective questions are a very normal part of this stage of life. But don’t get stuck in despair mode. Take an equal (if not greater) amount of time to reflect on the great things you’ve accomplished. The wisdom you’ve gained through all your life experiences—the difficult, the good and the surprising. The resilience you’ve developed by moving forward even when expectations and reality didn’t line up.
Remember too that there’s so much of life still ahead of you, even though the milestones of marriage, raising a family and having a career are perhaps behind you. Or maybe those milestones look different in this stage: maybe it’s time to pursue a second career as an entrepreneur? Maybe you’ll become a foster parent or community mentor? Maybe you’ll start dating again after divorce or the loss of a spouse? The opportunities haven’t changed because of your age. In fact, leverage this stage by seeking out new experiences through a lens of life wisdom.
#3: Plan a Transition Ritual
Many Americans hear the word ‘ritual’ and immediately think of primitive tribal cultures or religious ceremonies, Eckert says. However, ritual is much broader than that — handshakes, birthdays, bedtime stories and graduation ceremonies are all ‘rituals’ that signify deep-level sociological transactions.
“Just as many world cultures have coming of age ceremonies like the Bar Mitzvah, Quinceañera or sweet 16 party, retirement is also a coming of age moment that should be celebrated,” she says.
On a deep sociological and psychological level, those leaving the workplace are having an identity shift that needs to be commemorated—perhaps with a trip, a party or some form of public recognition. “This will help to create a smooth transition into the new retired identity and will be an opportunity to include significant friends and family members in the process of this important shift,” advises Eckert.
#4: Take Stock of Your Social Network
Sara Zeff Geber, PhD and author of Essential Retirement Planning for Solo Agers, has been doing retirement coaching for almost a decade. This tip is the number one piece of advice she gives those no longer working.
For some people this may mean cultivating a whole new set of friends, Geber says. “This is most true for those who have used their work colleagues as their primary social network throughout most of their lives. It is also true for those who have decided to make a move to a new geographic location for their retirement years.”
But for those who are staying put, Geber says it’s also important to acknowledge who is part of your social network and take steps to reinforce it. “As we get older it can feel more cumbersome to reach out and organize dinner parties or make dates the way we did when we were younger, yet it is just as important now as it was 20 years ago,” she says. “This is especially true for those who do not have family nearby—or any family at all.”
How to Build a Social Network—After Work
Don’t have a social network outside the office? Geber advises those who are no longer working to “become more of a joiner” and do the following:
- Find interest groups that appeal to you.
- Get more active in your religious community, if you have one.
- Check out Meetup.com to find people who share your interests.
- Get a dog and take him/her to a dog park.
- Organize a block party in your neighborhood.
- Join a book club.
#5: Be Intentional About Deeper Connections
According to Geert Hofstede’s cultural dimensions, America ranks number one as the most individualistic country in the world, says Eckert. But as she discusses on her blog, some of our culture’s seemingly ‘normal’ levels of individualism are actually extreme in comparison to the rest of the world and underlie much of our chronic loneliness.
“When transitioning out of a meaningful career, there must be a web of important relationships to prevent a shattering sense of loss,” she says. So, when you are no longer working, it’s important to be intentional about connecting to people you care about. Try to reconnect with those friends you couldn’t see as much when you were working full-time or your grandchildren who are grown-up now..
Schedule get-togethers in advance. Decide as a group to meet consistently, like the first Sunday of every month at a favorite brunch spot with friends. You could also do a family dinner group (alternating locations, if desired) every other month on a Friday night.
Perhaps your college-age granddaughter is free on Wednesdays and you could discover a new restaurant or shop at a favorite store together. Perhaps you could encourage a friend who’s been caring for her parents by checking in regularly on FaceTime, bringing her lunch or keeping her company when she’s running errands.
Use apps like Google Calendar or Outlook to set reminders and block off these meetups in your schedule. By doing so, you’re affirming the priority and vital importance of these relationships.
Practical Resources for Dealing With Post-Work Challenges
Even if you’re ready for a life after work, this phase of life is not without its challenges. From financial stresses to difficult health diagnoses, to unexpected singleness or caregiving responsibilities, there are some things you can’t plan for—and you can’t just escape to the office and throw yourself into work the way you may have done before. Too much unstructured free time can also leave you feeling restless and unfulfilled.
Here, we’ve outlined some resources to help you face these challenges and still find fulfillment—and joy!—in your post-work life.
Navigating Family Dynamics
Moving the kids out and welcoming Mom and Dad in? Caring for grandchildren full-time and feeling busier than you did while working? We’ve covered some of these topics in the following articles:
- Adult Children: The Guide to Parenting Your Grown Kids
- Caring for Multiple People at a Time
- Multigenerational Housing: Two or Three Generations Under One Roof
Finding Fulfilling Hobbies
Don’t know what to do with your free time after a lifetime of punching the clock? Let these articles inspire you to discover new hobbies or cultivate ones left behind:
- What Type of Vacation Should You Try Next?
- Brain Teasers to Help Keep Your Mind Sharp
- Six Retirement Hobbies for the Young at Heart
Managing Your Finances
Want the freedom to explore new adventures or pursue long-held dreams without worrying about your income? Check out our articles for practical ways to maximize your dollars:
- Scams Targeting Older Adults
- Tips to Make Your Accountant Love You
- Money-saving Time Wasters (and What to Do Instead)
- The Side Hustle — What It’s All About and How to Get Yours Going
Great Article! I would have been grateful to see the bibliography or else a reading list of books related to the content. I can find lots of articles about saving money for retirement but few about the social/emotional transitions.
Realistic, thought provoking, very encouraging and informative.
Thanks for sharing!