Recognising the big changes retirement can bring—Part 1

Businessman staring hopelessly at a gap in the bridge he needs to cross

Image: Andrey Burmakin/

When considering the mental and emotional issues that retirement brings, researchers recently reported that professionals who retire tend to go through processes of life restructuring and identity bridging.

In an interview about the research, Teresa Amabile, a professor at Harvard Business School, tells of the important psychological shift that takes place leading up to and during retirement. That’s especially so, she says, for those who identify strongly with their work.

The study interviewed 120 people in three companies across the United States. She calls them ‘professionals, white collar workers, knowledge workers’ with very strong identification with their work.

What made the research personal

The idea for the study came about five years ago as Amabile was thinking about her own retirement. Her husband reckons that what she really wanted was an evidence-based retirement for herself.

But, ‘I was very curious about how people approach it,’ she says, ‘and what makes for a good retirement life.’

‘My previous research discovered that people are happiest in their work on those days and those weeks and those months when they feel that they’re making progress in meaningful work.

‘And I wondered: what happens when you’re leaving that meaningful work behind? And I see, you know, among my family, my friends, my colleagues, some people who can’t seem to leave. They don’t want to make that transition.’

Amabile now works part-time as she transitions into her own retirement.

Life restructuring

Retirement is a big change for anyone—and it begins the day you stop work. If you’ve been working full time and then stop, the change is dramatic. But even if you transition with a part-time approach, it’s still a big change because ‘you’re going to have to really approach your life differently.’

Amabile found that some people start working on it before they retire. ‘That’s unusual,’ she says. For most though, ‘the transition period to a more stable life can be pretty short—it can be a matter of a few months.’

In an extreme case, she found that three years after retirement, one of them ‘still feels like he doesn’t have a stable, settled retirement life.’

She suspects that most people don’t think about the reality that they’ve been doing something with most of their waking hours for decades and now they’re going to have to do something else during those hours.

It’s fair to say that you haven’t restructured well if your retirement week looks like that of one of her respondents: ‘Well, you know, my life structure now is that I have Sunday—Church Day—followed by Saturday, Saturday, Saturday, Saturday, Saturday, Saturday.’

Identity bridging

On identity bridging, she reports, ‘Most of the people we’ve interviewed do seem to do some kind of identity bridging, but not everyone.’

The problem is that a strong identity is formed around their function and role within the workplace, which makes it difficult to adapt to the new role. ‘What do you do with that big chunk of yourself after you retire?’ asks Amabile.

The bridging part is about bridging from work to retirement by attempting ‘to maintain or somehow enhance some important aspect of yourself that existed pre-retirement.’ And that could be bringing some part of your work identity into retirement.

Often it can be something they loved doing outside their work that they engage with more fully, which they see as an important part of their identity. Whatever form it takes, it’s a bridge to the new life.

Amabile and her team of researchers have done us a service in identifying and helping us understand a process that many people go through in adapting to retirement. It’s helpful to be pre-warned and to prepare ourselves for the change.

Part 2 goes further into findings about life restructuring.

Part 3 considers more about identity bridging.

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

Category: Planning, Purpose, Working

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