Overcoming the Dark Side of Retirement: Loss of Professional Identity

by Lisa Downs | Sep 13, 2021
happy mature woman thinking

This is the first in a four-part series addressing issues of retirement life that may not be thought about pre-exit as part of your plan. Tending to these issues prior to leaving your CPA career will set you up for a fulfilling and successful "third act."

Part 1: Overcoming the Loss of Identity

When at a networking meeting or social event and you get the inevitable question, “What do you do?” what do you say? Chances are, your answer is about your CPA career – the type of accounting work you do, your firm or company, clients you serve, etc.

Ever thought, “What would I do if not this?” If so, you may find that you feel the loss of career identity in retirement more deeply, potentially leading to depression and a downward spiral with your health, post-exit. Know anyone who keeps coming into the office (physical or virtual) yet is supposed to be “retired,” at least on paper? Chances are, they too have what’s called high role centrality – a close bond with their work identity and perhaps a bit of fear as to what they’ll do with themselves now.

This loss is something that typically doesn’t get mentioned as part of traditional retirement or estate planning, yet for many, once past the honeymoon phase, it’s the hardest part of making the transition into this next phase of life. Instead, you can take steps act now to limit the impact of the loss on your well-being by following a few steps.

  1. Create a Vision Statement: To paraphrase the late, great George Harrison, and author Lewis Carroll, if you don’t know where you’re going, any road will take you there. It’s a little tough to put so much effort into the financial side of retirement planning if you don’t know what you’re funding. Everything starts with vision – what you’re aiming for in terms of how you live your life for the next 20-30 years after age 65. A clear and compelling vision statement then serves as the guidepost to create goals for this phase that hit on all of our human needs (physical, mental, social, emotional, intellectual, spiritual, and occupational) that will still have to be met post-career in order to thrive. It doesn’t mean it’s set in stone. Any vision is a dynamic piece of an overall plan. Without one, the chances of being adrift in retirement increase.
  2. Identify Core Values and Strengths: Who are you at your core when all else is stripped away (job, family, status, material possessions)? What defines who you are as a person beyond being a CPA? The answer to these questions can give you a great starting point to create a new introduction for yourself that also gives you confidence. Not sure? Brainstorm your core values (integrity, education, autonomy, loyalty, etc.) and how you can live according to them during retirement (or semi-retirement). You can also brainstorm your strengths and seek feedback to get a handle on this and receive input for how you could transfer these strengths to different activities or settings in a way that provides fulfillment.
  3. Draft a Plan: Any retirement plan worth its salt should be holistic and address the estate, end of life, financial, and lifestyle components for your next phase. Want to keep working in some capacity? Great. Nothing says you have to stop work completely. The question then becomes, “Doing what?” and, “For how long?” What will making a gradual transition look like, especially if your health starts to fade? How will you answer for each of those life pillars, especially ensuring you have strong social connections and support with housing during the coming decades? Dying at your desk is not a plan. Nor is “time with grandkids” or “travel,” especially during a global pandemic as we’ve been experiencing and the grandkids grow up and live their own lives.
  4. Honor Your Past: As with any loss, the loss of work identity is one to be grieved as you would the loss of a beloved person or pet. It’s common, and recommended, to honor your CPA career by working through the classic stages of grief, especially if retirement is not by choice or isn’t completely up to you. What do you need to let go of in order to move forward? What will that look like? We all grieve in different ways and this is no different. The important thing is to allow yourself to go through the process to better understand what aspects of your identity need to change post-career and how you’ll go about making this shift.

We all have a dark side to ourselves and the loss of identity in retirement is but one facet of this phase of life. How can you bring it into the light? Your answer will enable you to gain personal and professional redefinition, something exciting and fulfilling in and of itself.

Next Month: Part 2 - Overcoming the Loss of Meaning and Purpose

Lisa Downs headshotLisa Downs is President of New Aspect Coaching and host of Reigniting You… with Lisa Downs, a podcast offering career transition support for professionals. You can contact her at lisa@yournewaspect.com.

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