Identity after leaving fulltime work

There are many different facets when it comes to preparation for retirement. The challenges are numerous – mentally and physically, psychologically and energetically.

These areas are rarely focused on.

A survey conducted through the Trans America Center of Retirement Studies in the US revealed that 41 per cent of respondents reported moving out of fulltime work as being more stressful than either the transition into marriage or changing previous jobs.

Most indicated that they had not been prepared enough for the reality of having another 35-60 hours a week on their hands.

A more recent survey of 1000 new retirees (within five years of retirement) conducted by the Centre for Ageing Better in the UK discovered that 20 per cent of people found the transition difficult. This is particularly the case for successful men.

Part of this is due to a crisis of identity.

For 60,000+ years, the primary role of men has been to provide for the family and/or the extended social community. As society has developed, we have moved away from hunting and gathering to earning money.

In his book David and Goliath, Malcom Gladwell looks closely at Samuel Stouffer’s concept of relative deprivation and how it plays out in various environments.

Relative deprivation is the idea that by comparing and evaluating yourself against a cohort or people with whom you spend a lot of time, there is the perception that you are not doing as well as others.

Relative deprivation is also called the “Big Fish Little Pond Effect”.

In the study explored in the book, Stoufler found that there were similar statistics across many universities, regardless of whether they were prestigious or poorer or less selective public institutions.

In a nutshell, it’s not how smart you are, it is how smart you feel relative to other people in your various environments that drives your self-perception. Really, it’s how you feel that matters.

In a university situation, the smarter you think your peers are, the dumber you feel. The dumber you feel, the more likely you are to drop out.

So how does this idea of relative deprivation relate to the journey out of fulltime work?

When leaving employment, relative deprivation can combine with relevance deprivation.

When leaving employment, relative deprivation may arise in the perception that another man who has just entered the next stage of their life may be doing better than you, that they have “their s--t in order” so to speak: they have a better car, they have just been on a luxury cruise etc.

The danger here is that relative deprivation (comparing your internal experience with others in a similar situation) combined with the concept of relevance deprivation (the fact that the phone has stopped ringing and there are not as many invitations has a big effect on your confidence and sense of identity.

When leaving fulltime work, many men lose a sense of their identity.


They’ve been able to answer the question, “what do you do?” with certainty for so many years and have normally associated themselves with a certain role.

The question becomes harder when you’re no longer working. You suddenly have to think about what you are going to say.

For many successful men, there is an addictive quality to having relevance within a group or company. This is inherent to many of the patriarchal aspects of the western society.

This institutionalisation starts with schooling and continues right through our lives. Our ego needs to be fed and one of the ways to do this is through the creation of imaginary and illusionary temples and templates that support industry and commerce.

However, there is a price to pay when tying your identity to your career – the emotional withdrawal that occurs once the status is removed in the movement out of fulltime work and into the next stage.

In a business setting and hierarchy, it is easy to measure your success and relevance.

When leaving fulltime work, the status and relevance goes … and with that can come feelings of loss and uncertainty. This is why the mental preparation for the shift out of full-time work needs to come well before the shift itself.

It is time to be your own man, to be yourself, not a label you’ve worn in a company or business – never mind how many years you’ve worn it. Be free.

 Steve Mendl is the author of Beyond the Money and specialises in career to retirement transition.