Recognising the big changes retirement brings—Part 3

stylish man in coat and scarf with suitcase standing on pedestrian bridge

Image: LightField Studios/

Identity bridging is a process that can help people transition into retirement, and particularly if they’ve been strongly engaged in their work. According to Teresa Amabile from the Harvard Business School, it can help bring about a fulfilling retirement.

From a study of professional, white-collar workers, she and her team discovered many of them had a strong identification with their work.

‘What do you do with that?’ she asks. ‘What do you do with that big chunk of yourself after you retire? . . .  We’ve discovered that many people engage in what we call identity bridging.’

By this she means ‘to maintain or somehow enhance some important aspect of yourself that existed pre-retirement.’

It isn’t all about work 

This bridging identity is not only about your work identity. It can also be about the things you enjoyed doing at the time you were working.

For instance, it can be a hobby or a cause you were involved in. In retirement, you have the opportunity to work on this in a more focused way.

It could be a rewarding friendship or relationship that has developed over time. Retirement allows you more time to deepen these relationships.

One father with an older teenager in high school described how she was struggling with her homework and other aspects of her life.

‘He became much more engaged with her after retiring,’ reports Amabile. ‘He helped her with her schoolwork. They did projects together. So that really enriched his life.

‘And it bridged that father identity, which had been a small part of his identity, small but important before, and it now occupied a very big piece of his identity.’

Or there may be an interest you had earlier in life that had been a part of your identity. Retirement can be a time to renew it.

One of the lessons from the study is that if working people have some creative activity outside of work while ‘they’re fully engaged in their career’ that helps them to have something to build on after work. This becomes a ‘natural identity bridge’.

It’s also about work

For some, the work identity is so strong that it’s ‘another way in which people do identity bridging and that is to actually bridge a piece of the worker identity.’

This can be done in several ways. It can be done by volunteering in some form that allows the use of their skills. This could be an accountant working on the books of a non-profit organisation.

It could be working part-time as a consultant within the industry they’ve worked in.

Some are testing and developing their entrepreneurial skills, which has become a popular pastime among the 50-65 age group (the fastest growing group of entrepreneurs).

One of those Amabile interviewed was a ‘high-level tech person’ who loved fixing things. When he retired, he started a handyman business. He doesn’t charge as much as he could and he doesn’t work more hours than he wants to.

What it has done, though, is allow him to say he has a handyman business, which, ‘was really important for him’. It helped to ‘anchor’ his identity.

It’s about life

Your identity is important. It’s about who you are and who you think you are. For many, their identity is wrapped up in their work. And often you will be identified by others as what you do—your work.

This study is an important reminder that we take who we are into retirement—identity included. And it’s how we use, adapt, change our identity to bridge the pre-retirement, post-retirement life that can make a difference.

Part 1 Takes an overview of life restructuring and identity bridging

Part 2 looks more in-depth at life restructuring

Bruce Manners: the author of Retirement Ready?, Refusing to Retire, and founder of

Category: Lifestyle, Planning, Purpose

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