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date: 23 April 2021

Finding Meaning During the Retirement Process: Identity Development in Later Career Years

Abstract and Keywords

This chapter discusses “identity-based retirement,” a psychosocial process of identity transition and search for meaning. We see the career as a series of short learning cycles, mini versions of the lifelong career stage model of Super (1957). Retirement is a recursive process of intentions, actions, and outcomes, through which new behaviors generalize to involvement in new roles, and new subidentities associated with retirement (Hall, 1971, 2002). This process entails communicating internally with the self and externally with significant others. Factors in the individual (self-comparisons and protean career orientation) and relational factors (developmental networks and reference groups) influence the identity and goal-setting process, making the person both the agent and the target of the change process that is retirement. Thus the necessity to be self-anchored during retirement gives people the opportunity to find personal meaning in ways that step outside of their previous working lives.

Keywords: identity-based retirement, meaning protean career orientation, self-comparison, reference group, developmental network

Introduction: Two Views of Retirement

We invite you to try a little mental exercise. Close your eyes and imagine that you have settled into a happy retirement. Think of concrete things … the place you are in, the people you are with, your activities for today, the thoughts and feelings you are having, and so on. As you do that, notice what your overall reactions are to this picture. Are you happy with this life? Are you learning? Are you bored? Are you struggling to fill your day with meaningful activities?

We would expect that there may be two major kinds of images that people have of retirement in this sort of exercise. One might be a kind of permanent vacation. Here you are happily engaged in activities that you pursue for their intrinsic satisfaction potential. You are pursuing your deep interests and passions, you are learning and stimulated, and you are feeling effective and productive in what you are doing. Certainly, the research has found that retirement may result in a sense of well-being, due to a cessation or decrease in demands and stressors of employment (Shim, Gimeno, Pruitt, McLeod, Foster, & Amick, 2013).

Another image might be imminent death. Here retirement represents the cessation of meaningful, productive activities and a period of trying to fill the hours of each day. You may know of several people who retired from extremely busy lives, only to die a year or two later. In this second image, then, retirement means that death is in the wings. Research also supports this view and has found that health-related retirement (i.e. retirement due to ill health) is a strong risk factor for illness and mortality (Shim et al., 2013).

Of course these are extreme views, but, based on anecdotal data, we would argue that each is widely held and, as shown here, there is research evidence to support both views. The two polarized images above may be, in part, a function of the way retirement has been studied in the careers literature. A review of the retirement literature identifies two common conceptualizations of retirement: (a) retirement as a decision and (b) retirement as a stage (the final career stage; Shultz & Wang, 2011). Both of these approaches add value to our understanding of retirement. For example, the “decision making” research helps us understand the psychological, social, organizational, and economic factors that motivate people’s choices to retire (Adams, Prescher, Beehr, & Lepisto, 2002; Wang, Zhan, Liu, & Shultz, 2008) and influence the experiences of those people who experience involuntary retirement (e.g., Szinovacz, Adams, & Beehr, 2003; van Solinge & Henkens, 2008). The “stage approach” investigates the individual, job, and organizational factors that influence the post-retirement activities people engage in, the decisions that some people make to continue to work post-retirement, and the importance of leisure once retired (Jex, Wang, & Zarubin, 2007; Pleau & Shauman, 2013; Post, Schneer, & Reitman, 2013; Read, Muller, & Waters, 2013; Wang, Adams, Beehr, & Shultz, 2009).

Both of these approaches have assisted our understanding, but we would also argue that they have led to a rather static focus of retirement. Moreover, they have focused on decisions and activities as the prime lens via which to understand retirement and have not adequately considered the iterative ways in which people negotiate and continually renegotiate their identity and meaning as they adjust to life without paid employment.

In focusing on the retirement decision itself and the activities that occur in the “retirement phase,” it is tempting for the everyday person to develop static and unidimensional images of retirement either as a fun-filled vacation or slow walk to the grave. We propose a third possibility. That is the view that life goes on. In this view, our lives are characterized by a certain mix of continuity and stability and that whatever has interested us to this point in our lives will continue to provide satisfaction and meaning after we retire even if the form, settings, and relationship by which these interests are expressed may change. This third option allows people to have a dynamic view of what retirement will be like and a realization that retirement offers a kaleidoscope of potential experiences—the vacation, the imminent death, and many other experiences in between. The “life goes on” idea also encourages people to think about retirement as an ongoing, lifelong experience rather than a discrete career stage they pass through.

The “life goes on” option is aligned with researchers who view retirement as an adjustment process and analyze the progression via which the retiree becomes more accustomed to post-retirement changes in their lives. According to Goodman, Schlossberg, and Anderson (2006) adjustment is achieved when retirees are no longer preoccupied with the transition but are comfortable with their changed circumstances and able to integrate retirement into their lives. Unlike the prior conceptualization, prominence is not given to the decision to retire and its associated factors. Instead, retirement is seen as a longitudinal and dynamic process, guided by resources, such as personal life experiences, individual characteristics, environmental factors, and internal attributes, and changes to those resources across time (Szinovacz et al., 2003; van Solinge & Henkens, 2008).

The Meaning of Retirement

In this article we argue for a model based on this third view of retirement. We call it “identity-based retirement,” and it means, simply put, that retirement is a psychosocial process of identity transition and search for meaning. This approach is based on a holistic view of adult development, that the person has one identity with many different facets, some of which become more salient and public than others in certain contexts. Retirement is an opportunity for a person to rethink his or her identity and to possibly reorient it. This process may work in a way similar to unemployment, a period that Koen, Klehe, Van Vianen, Zikic, and Nauta (2010) found was one in which people can use to reorient their identities.

The identity-based view of retirement is in contrast to a more traditional definition of retirement as a major life “jolt,” a transition where the person shifts suddenly from one way of being to another one that is quite different. We would argue that the boundary between employment and retirement has become increasingly blurred over the years and the themes that characterize a person’s life during the employment years have continuity that carries over into retirement. George Vaillant, who led the famous Grant study of Harvard men who graduated in the 1940s, has concluded that retirement is not as major a life change as many people believe. Vaillant (2002) observes that “Retirement is highly overrated as a major life problem” (p. 220). He reports that of the men in his study, the ones who “liked working the best at 60 liked retirement the best at 75. In sum, those who liked working liked retirement” (p. 221).

This new view of retirement is supported by a newer view of careers (Hall, 2002). The traditional view of careers is that they are played out over a lifelong sequence of career stages, which start with the creation of a career identity in the childhood and adolescent years and end in decline and retirement (Super, 1957). In this model the career stages are as follows:

  1. 1. Growth stage (Birth–14). In this stage, thinking about careers starts with fantasy thinking, based on needs and fantasy role play, as one imagines oneself in a certain occupation. These images of the self in a career role become more realistic with age.

  2. 2. Exploration stage (age 15–24). Here the person experiments with possible career identities (15–17) through tentative choices, such as courses, parttime work, and discussion. Next there is a transition period (18–21) when the person enters the labor market or professional training and attempts to enact an occupational identity.

  3. 3. Establishment stage (age 26–44). In this stage the person attempts to create a more permanent career identity. There is first a trial period (25–30), which might include job changes before a good fit is found. Then, when the right fit is found, there is a period of stabilization (31–44), as the person settles down in the work, feels at home in the career identity, and becomes secure in the career work.

  4. 4. Maintenance stage (age 45–64). Once the person has become established in his or her identity and work role, the focus is on preserving that place.

  5. 5. Decline stage (age 65 and on). As physical and mental capabilities decline, the person’s work activities change. New roles must be found. The substages here are deceleration (65–70), when the person may shift from full-time to parttime work or the duties may change, and retirement (71 and on), when the person stops occupational work. However, there is great variability here, with some people stopping completely and easily and others continuing employment until death. (Super, Crites, Hummel, Moser, Overstreet, & Warnath, 1957)

The more contemporary view of careers is that there is a lot of change, often self-directed, and movement across various boundaries, such as occupations, employing organizations, industry or sector specializations, different levels of work involvement (parttime, full-time, nonemployment), and type of employment (contract worker, regular employee, unpaid intern, etc.). Various terms have been used to describe this shift from organizational control to personal agency, such as the protean career (self-directed, values-driven work orientation; Hall, 2002), boundaryless career (Arthur & Rousseau, 2001), postindustrial career (Peiperl & Baruch, 1997), the career lattice (Benko & Anderson, 2010), and the kaleidoscope career (Mainiero & Sullivan, 2006).

All of these contemporary career models emphasize the theme of continual change and learning. Because products, technologies, markets, consumer preferences, as well as social, political, and security conditions, are changing so rapidly, the person must be capable of constant adaptation and personal career redirection to compete successfully in emerging conditions. We are no longer in a world where a person has one single career that evolves over a lifetime in the stages identified in the 1950s by Super and colleagues (1957). Rather, the career now is made up of a series of short learning cycles, which are like mini-versions of the lifelong career stage model. That is, first a person explores a certain area of career opportunity (e.g., through informational interviews and networking,) engages in trial activities with that kind of work (e.g., takes an internship), gets established in that new career field, and then masters the work in that field through attaining peak performance. And then, in time, perhaps because business or market conditions change, or because the person’s needs or personal circumstances change, the person begins a new exploration process (Hall, 1971, 2002).

Thus the person’s career work consists of the sum of many of these learning cycles, and he or she might go through major career shifts or transitions ten or more times during his or her lifetime. In popular terminology someone might say the person had had ten or more careers in his or her life, but it is perhaps more correct to say that he or she had ten or more occupations or career/learning cycles. We would argue that the person had only had one career, as all of these different kinds of work, taken together, constitute one career. That is, we are defining the career as the lifelong series of work-related experiences over the span of the person’s work life (Hall, 2002), and we consider retirement to be part of this lifelong series that simply represents a new learning cycle.

The difference between the new role or roles that the retiring person is exploring may be greater than the differences between successive employment roles in the earlier years, but the move into retirement is still a transition into learning to live with a new identity, and the change processes are qualitatively similar. Thus as Vaillant (2002) found, the person who is able to navigate the various transitions and learning cycles of the employed years will be equally successful in learning his or her way through the transition into retirement.

This leads us to our definition of retirement:

Retirement is a psychosocial process of identity transition and search for meaning (i.e., creation of a new identity), which is triggered by retirement events.

This definition adopts a process viewpoint and follows the “retirement as an adjustment process” put forward by Shim et al. (2013). In contrast to most career transitions during the employment years, which are often associated with changing organizations, jobs, and responsibilities, retirement is more of a life transition, which is more encompassing, including social and personal identity change and changes in reference groups. In the following section we describe how this learning cycle plays out in relation to a retirement role. We call this iterative collection of experiences the retirement process.

The Retirement Process: Identity, Goal Setting, and Retirement Outcomes

Like other transitions in the person’s career, the process of retirement is also a process that involves intentions and decisions, trial behaviors that grow out of those intentions, and success or failure experiences (outcomes). More specifically, these variables work together to create a recursive cycle (Hall, 2002), in which the person’s evolving identity leads him or her to develop new intentions that lead to actions that create life and career transitions. These changes may be small or major. Ibarra (2004b) describes how many changes in midcareer are small steps or experiments and may not be consciously thought of at the time as leading to career transitions, but they can have that effect under certain conditions. In a similar way, these goal-oriented action steps around retirement could also be small and experimental, although people would probably have more of a sense that they are ultimately taking them toward retirement.

These actions lead to various subjective and objective experiences that will, in turn, influence attitudes and identity (e.g., satisfaction, involvement, and motivation). Objective experiences could include exit from a job, retirement functions, or a career success such as promotion to a higher rank upon retirement, and some could be subjective, such as increased adaptability, exploration of new interests, or a feeling of loss of meaning and purpose from work. Depending on the nature of the outcomes, there could also be changes in the person’s identity and self-esteem, and these changes could in turn feedback to influence his or her commitment to the initial goals.

Finding Meaning During the Retirement ProcessIdentity Development in Later Career Years

Figure 1. A retirement process.

When the transition experience leads to positive outcomes for the person, the result can be a self-reinforcing “success cycle.” Yet when it leads to negative outcomes, the person may adjust identity and intentions, either searching for a newer identity or cycling back to his or her old identity. A simplified version of such a process would look like that depicted in Figure 1. By way of example, a retired nurse decides to take over the management of her own finances (intention). She does not consider herself to be “good with money” and has previously paid an accountant, but now that she is no longer earning a living she does not feel she can afford the accountant. As part of this new intention she lodges her first post-retirement tax return (trial) and receives a small tax return (success). This learning cycle may assist her to develop a new component to her identity (e.g., financial manager) and help to build skills and confidence in an area in which she previously did not have confidence. She now gradually revises her identity to that of a person who is “good with money.” On the other hand, if she did not successfully complete the tax return and had a failure experience, she would cycle back to her old identity in the feedback loop shown in Figure 1.

Through this recursive process of intentions, actions, and outcomes, the person could become more and more involved in the new behaviors, and this could generalize to involvement in new roles and the creation of a new subidentity related to retirement (Hall, 1971, 2002). For example, that same nurse may feel confident to take on a voluntary position as treasurer in her community or leisure group now that she has a new self-identity as someone who is able to manage finances. This new self-conception, gained through the learning cycle, then offers her the opportunity to expand her identity even further within varied social groups.

We hasten to add that the retirement process is not as rational and intentional as our model would suggest, at least not in all cases. While some people certainly do think through their plans for retirement very thoroughly and have very concrete and detailed goals and action steps, we would argue that many people have more vague and general ideas of what they want to do. Perhaps the most concrete goal that many people have relates to when they would terminate their paid employment or start a phasing-down process. This is the “retirement as a decision-making process” approach that was discussed earlier and is researched by Adams et al. (2002) and Wang et al. (2008). The decision and action to retire give people the newly formed identity of “retiree,” but other new identities may form more organically after the formal decision to retire has been made. For example, it may be that a retiree—let’s say a retired investment banker—explores volunteer opportunities in the community with only a loosely defined intention to get more socially connected now that he has more time (intention). A volunteer activity, for tutoring math students in the local school presents itself (trial) and turns out to be highly satisfying (subjective success), as the person discovers he is actually a good teacher and the students are learning math under his tutorship and doing well in their tests (e.g., objective success). This love for teaching and for helping young people forms a new subidentify in the man as a “teacher,” which extends his newly formed identity of “retired investment banker.” So he might sign up for more volunteer activities, such as advising the school’s math club and coaching students with their college applications. In this way one thing might lead to another, and as a result his subidentity as a teacher leads to other meaningful activities. The man might go on to earn a teaching certificate or run for the local school board. And before long he could be fully involved in the retirement role.

What we have just described is a general high-level view of how the retirement process can operate. But there are more specific components in the functioning of this cycle, as well as important moderating factors in the person and in the context. We now take a deeper dive and create a theoretical model of how the process operates. In the following section we show how factors in the individual, such as self-comparisons and protean career orientation (PCO), and relational factors, such as developmental networks and reference groups, can influence the person’s identity and goal-setting process. In this two-sided process, the person is both the agent and the target of the change process that is retirement.

The Mechanisms: How Identity and Retirement Influence Each Other

The retirement process starts when the person begins to think about retirement. The person needs to develop a mental conception of retirement to help in the process of taking action. When a person begins to embark on the process of retirement, there are two kinds of influences on his or her images of retirement and, thus, the operation of the retirement success cycle. One set of influences happens at the individual level and involves personal factors such as self-comparisons and PCO. A second important set of influences is relational factors, including reference groups and the person’s developmental network. These two factors represent two types of communication that take place around retirement: communications with the self and communications with others.

What exactly do we mean by the term “communications” in this context? What we are saying is that, because retirement is such a unique and significant process in a person’s life, one necessarily does a lot of cognitive work in advance, thinking about it, having dialogues internally (with self) and with others. There is a lot of self-reflection before and after one takes various actions, and there is a lot of conversation with friends and colleagues who have preceded the person into retirement, as well as with peers and even younger colleagues who are at the same point as oneself. Since each person’s situation and experience is unique, there is a lot of sense-making to be done. Next we look in more detail at two important kinds of communication and dialogue about the retirement process: communication with the self and communication with important others (reference groups and members of one’s developmental networks).

Communicating with the Self in a Retirement Experience Episode

Social Cognitive Theory Effects and the Protean Career Orientation

One way to think about the relationship between identity and retirement is to think of retirement as a late stage of career that expresses self and makes people different from others. Social cognitive theory (Bandura, 1986, 2001) adopted an agentic perspective to indicate that individuals are self-organizing, proactive, self-regulating, and self-reflecting. They are agents that shape intentionally their life circumstances and the courses their lives take (Bandura, 2006). Similar to other transitions in contemporary careers, retirement could be a self-determined career planning process that is driven by people’s own values or self-defined meaning of life.

One of the ways this agentic quality is manifested is through an individual’s PCO. PCO is “an attitude toward the career that reflects freedom, self-direction, and making choices based on one’s personal values” (Briscoe & Hall, 2006, p. 6). We would hypothesize that PCO would serve as a moderator of the functioning of the retirement process success cycle shown in Figure 1. That is, the higher a person’s PCO, the greater is the likelihood that he or she would initiate trial behaviors leading toward retirement and have an agentic or self-directed retirement process and a successful search for meaning in retirement. In other words, the retirement transition process is more likely to be successful for a person with a high PCO than for a person with a low PCO.

As key mechanisms of this moderating process, consider two career meta-competencies that are associated with PCO (Hall, 2002). One is self-awareness, which reflects how clear one’s personal identity is (identity clarity) and the other is adaptability, which is the capacity to change (Briscoe & Hall, 2003). Because of these two meta-competencies, people with a high PCO might reflect on their personal identity and adjust their retirement in some way that would make it more meaningful and value-driven, through the agentic process.

Self-Comparisons as a Source of Possible Selves in Retirement Planning

Where might people’s perception of meaningful retirement come from? One possible source is personal reflection and self-comparisons. Social psychologists have identified multifaceted and dynamic structure of self-concept, such as past selves (Albert, 1977), current selves, ideal selves, ought selves (Higgins, 1987), possible selves (Markus & Nurius, 1986; Ibarra, 2004a), and alternative selves (Obodaru, 2012). Based on a review of this group of literature, Obodaru classified two characteristics of the self-concept: self-definitions, which described who the person is in the present, and self-comparisons, which described aspects of the self that do not currently define the person (i.e. self-redefining selves). By comparing oneself with particular self-redefining selves, the individual may shift his or her current views of “who I am.” Such a personal identity mechanism would become salient during critical moments and transitions in life (Obodaru, 2012), especially retirement.

People during retirement are likely to experience multiple changes in physical, psychological, and cognitive abilities. It may force them to rethink the self and cope with the newly developed internal and external perceptions of their capabilities. For example, Kim and Hall (2012) suggested that, on the one hand, a decrease in fluid intelligence to adapt to new situations made people in later career more likely to stick to what they used to do. On the other hand, an increase in skilled related crystallized intelligence provided them an ability to oversee the broader work environment and relate their current job with what they used to do (Atchley, 1989). Thus jobs with high perceived task significance and high locus of control provide higher levels of intrinsic motivation and are thus likely to enable older workers to maintain high levels of effort and performance. (O’Reilly, Parlette, & Bloom, 1980). In terms of emotions, older people tend to recognize more positive emotions than negative emotions (Charles, Mather, & Carstensen, 2003; Mather & Carstensen, 2003). They are likely to have attention biases toward positive emotions over negative ones and may miss their previous experiences if they can’t find positive things in new experiences. On the other hand, they may also be more likely to see the positive elements in the changes that they are experiencing. They may even have more “zest” for their life and their activities (Peterson, Park, Hall, & Seligman, 2009.) Thus, either way, these significant changes in both cognition and emotions around the retirement process may trigger sense-making, which may include self-comparisons with different possible self-concepts.

In terms of possible images of the self in retirement, let’s go back to the examples at the beginning of this chapter. The image of retirement as permanent vacation may prompt thoughts about “How am I compared to the person I desire/dread to become?” or “What could I do to become more like the person I would ideally aspire to be?” Or, as one humorist put it, “How could I become more like the person my dog thinks I am?” The image of retirement as imminent death may trigger people to search for an alternative self who might devote more time to family or to other things that are really meaningful to him or her. Read, Muller, and Waters (2013) found that retirees seek out leisure that is meaningful rather than leisure that simply is pleasant. Specifically, the retirees aimed for leisure experiences that created shared experiences with others and contribute to a feeling of “collective purpose.” This might be part of the search for an alternate self who is aiming to leave a meaningful legacy and is not simply walking to the graveyard on the way to imminent death.

The image of retirement as life goes on may prompt thoughts about “How close am I to me at the peak in the past?” or “What could I do to retain the strengths of my current self?” For example, a CEO may favor the current self as a successful captain of a large company and start to think about how to maintain such success when he reaches the retiring age. Or this CEO may favor the ought self as a righteous businessman who cares about the well-being of others and start to spend more of his time on social responsibility in his later careers. Or, similar to the two scenarios above, this CEO may favor the alternative self and start to look for leisure activities. The salience of one kind of self-redefining selves might be triggered by different factors, such as individual values, social expectations, and family background. Those self-comparisons would influence identity in such a way that the more salient one kind of self-redefining selves is, the more likely it is that that self-defining self would exert the strongest influence on the emerging retirement identity, through the agentic process. In other words, we would hypothesize that the more salient one kind of self-redefining selves is, the higher likelihood that an individual would adjust his or her identity to fit that self.

Communicating with Others in a Retirement Experience Episode

Social Network Perspective and the Developmental Network

The other way to think about identity transition during retirement is to consider retirement as a career transition associated with dramatic changes in relationships with others. Individuals are simultaneously embedded in multiple social networks during retirement, such as the preretirement company, the post-retirement social communities or clubs, family, friends, or career consulting associations. These different social networks together could form, or be part of, an individual’s developmental network, which is “the set of people a protégé names as taking an active interest in and action to advance the protégé’s career by providing developmental assistance (Higgins & Kram, 2001, p. 268). Kadushin (2012) proposed two psychological foundations that motivate people to engage in their social networks: safety, which is the motivation to derive support from one’s social environment, and effectance, which is the motivation to reach out beyond one’s current situation and comfort zone. We argue that because retirement is not always a successful cycle—rather, it may be an unpleasant experience associated with a loss of self-identity, colleagues, finance support, or health—it is a critical moment in one’s life when one must rely on one’s developmental network to get things done (i.e., effectance) and to affiliate to a community (i.e., safety).

Such an argument is aligned with inconsistent findings in current literature with regard to the impact of retirement. From one perspective, retirement may result in a sense of well-being, due to a cessation or decrease in demanding and stressful careers. However, retirement may arguably decrease well-being, as there is a loss of occupational identity and social network of coworkers. Consequently, it is not surprising that while there are indications of increased life satisfaction and quality of life post-retirement, other studies have similarly suggested a decline or minimal effect of retirement on cognitive, mental, and physical health when comparing workers and retirees of similar age (e.g., Bound & Waidmann, 2007, Dave, Rashad, & Spasojevic, 2006; Kim & Moen, 2002, Lindeboom, Portrait, & van den Berg, 2002; Mein, Martikainen, Hemingway, Stansfeld, & Marmot, 2003; Rohwedder & Willis, 2010; Westerlund et al., 2009; Wu, Tang, & Yan, 2005). For instance, a recent meta-analysis by Shim et al (2013) demonstrated that while there was some evidence for retirement to be considered as a mortality risk factor, results were mixed when specific types of retirement were analyzed individually. Specifically, among different types of retirement (i.e., on-time retirement, early retirement [not health related], and health-related retirement), only health-related retirement played as a risk factor for mortality.

More specifically, identities can look different during retirement. Gerontological literature takes two opposite orientations toward identities during retirement (Mutran & Reitzes, 1981). One considers retirement as an identity crisis (Miller, 1965). Based on the assumption that individuals derived their identities primarily from their occupations, Miller suggested that retirement is degrading because occupational identity is related to deeply ingrained values, or so-called a legitimate identity, yet retirement indicates that individuals are no longer able to play occupational roles. Therefore retirement may lead to negative effects on well-being, such as lowering one’s self-esteem or inhibiting social participation. The other orientation considers retirement as identity continuity (Atchley, 1989). It states that older individuals attempt to preserve and maintain existing internal and external structures. They make adaptive choices to maintain continuity in inner psychological characteristics, social behavior, and social circumstances (Atchley, 1989). Because very few people rest their entire identity on a single role, retirement is not disruptive to the performance of other roles, such as the friend roles, the father roles, or leisure roles (Atchley, 1971). Therefore, unlike retirement as an identity crisis, it can be a smooth and gradual identity adjustment in one’s life (Mutran & Reitzes, 1981).

Both identity crisis and identity continuity indicate that retirement involves deep identity reconstruction. It creates the “in-between period” (Ibarra, 2004b, p. 45) during which individuals’ identities are in flux. As Ibarra described, it’s emotionally and cognitively difficult for an individual to let go of a career in which he or she has invested much time, training, and hard work and when the alternative careers may remain fuzzy. Such an in-between period is full of possible selves, unpleasant and anxious feelings, and multiple career or life opportunities. We argue that developmental network could help people deal with such a fuzzy period and serve as a moderator of the functioning of the retirement process success cycle shown in Figure 1. That is, the higher quality and quantity of a person’s developmental network, the greater is the likelihood that he or she will initiate trial behaviors leading toward retirement and have a self-directed retirement process and a successful search for meaning in retirement.

Our argument is based on two features of developmental network. One is providing career support by network diversity (Higgins & Kram, 2001). As we mentioned, retirement is an intentional process involving intentions, trail behaviors, and success or failure experiences. During this process, efficient career information is necessary for individuals to either find out intentions or seek the right trial ways to reach those intentions. The higher the range of the developmental network (i.e. network diversity), the higher the likelihood a person will have access to valuable resources and efficient information that support his or her retirement transition.

The other feature of developmental network is providing psychosocial support through relationship strength (Higgins & Kram, 2001). Strong ties, which are indicated by high level of reciprocity and frequency of communication (Granovetter, 1973), could influence individuals’ retirement in two ways. First, the retirement process is full of uncertainty and anxiety, and high-quality developmental relationships could help individuals to deal with such anxiety and improve protégés’ psychological well-being. For example, mentoring literature suggests that a high-quality mentoring relationship may have positive effects on cardiovascular and immune outcomes, such as blood pressure, cortisol (stress-related hormone), and other health-related indices (Kram & Ragins, 2007). It could also increase psychological capital, such as self-efficacy, optimism, hope, resilience, and psychological thriving (Luthans, 2002; Luthans & Youssef, 2007; Spreitzer, Sutcliffe, Dutton, Sonenshein, & Grant, 2005). Moreover, Ibarra and Deshpande (2004) reviewed mediators of networks on career outcomes and pointed out that, besides instrumental resources, network is beneficial for career development by providing psychosocial mediators, such as socialization, mentoring, and identity formation. Second, strong ties could also reinvent individuals’ personal identity. A key mechanism of this effect is the safety drive. Greenberg (1991) pointed out that individuals will not risk new behaviors or experiences unless they feel safe enough to do so. In order to feel physical, intellectual, and psychological relaxation, individuals might move closer to other people because of the safety drive. Therefore, it indicates that individuals may reconstruct their identities according to the people who have strong ties with them.

In sum of these two mechanisms of strong ties, we hypothesize that the strength of developmental network would also serve as a moderator of the functioning of the retirement process success cycle shown in Figure 1. That is, the stronger an individual’s developmental network, the higher likelihood that he or she would initiate trial behaviors leading toward his or her intentions and have a successful search for meaning in retirement.

Though it does not directly mentioning the moderated effect of development network on the relationship between identity and successful retirement outcomes, the human development literature supports our argument about the positive effect of social network on successful retirement outcomes. For example, based on a meta-analysis of 184 empirical studies on the association of social network and subjective well-being in later life, Pinquart and Sörensen (2000) found a positive relationship between social network and life satisfaction (quality: r = .22; quantity: r = .12), self-esteem (quality: r = .15; quantity: r = .11), and happiness (quality: r = .24; quantity: r = .17).

Reference Groups as a Source of Possible Selves in Retirement Planning

As we mentioned, retirement is an in-between period with fuzzy identities. Insofar as retirement involves changes of employment relationships, inevitably it also involves identity changes triggered by relational factors. Weick (1995) described humans as meaning seekers who are involved in the ongoing process of sense-making. How individuals’ sense of the self is influenced by the relationships with others has been widely described in the identity and identification literatures. For example, social identity theory (Tajfel, 1978) states that personal identity is shaped and affected by the social groups that individuals identify with through a shared membership. Moreover, research on relational identification (e.g., Aron & Aron, 2000; Sluss & Ashforth, 2007) also suggests that individuals extend their sense of self to include relationship with others, such as mentor–protégé, supervisor–subordinate, coworkers, and friends. Therefore, we argue that, in addition to self-comparison, social comparisons are an important source for people to know themselves and search for meaning during retirement. That is to say, when professional identify is removed, comparisons to one’s reference groups are an important way in which people come to know themselves during retirement.

Reference group is “the group to which an individual orients himself, regardless of actual membership” (Singer, 1981, p. 66). Grote and Hall (2013) distinguished three functions of reference groups. Normative and comparative functions, which stem from identity theories, work in a way that provide norms and standards for individuals to know how to think, feel, and act and to evaluate themselves (Singer, 1981). Specifically, to make sense of others and themselves, people usually classify themselves and others into different social categories using social-demographic characteristics such as age, race, religion, or organizational membership (Turner, 1982). These categories cause them to define themselves in terms of multiple social identities (Tajfel & Turner, 1985; Ashforth, Harrison, & Corley, 2008), adjusting their personal identity through identity work (Kreiner, Hollensbe, & Sheep, 2006; Pratt, Rockmann, & Kaufmann, 2006). For example, during retirement, people may choose other retired people of similar ages as a normative reference group, identifying themselves as persons who are experiencing life transition from an employee to a retired worker and considering exploring activities beyond work as norms and standards. Or they may choose other employees in the same organization as a comparative reference group, identifying themselves as senior employees who are entering the late stage of careers and considering devoting to work and becoming a high-performance employee as norms and standards.

These two functions may highly intertwine and influence the evaluation of the self. For example, a recently retired professor might know another academic who has been retired for ten years and has stayed very active in several research projects, continuing to write books and articles during retirement. This more senior retiree could serve a normative function for the newer retiree, as the latter could draw lessons from the way his colleague chooses which projects to stay active in, how he finds support for his research in the absence of an organizational role, and how he keeps up with the literature. With this normative function, the more senior person serves as a role model, providing directional guidance on useful personal strategies for staying vital in the research realm. At the same time, the more senior person could serve a normative function, in that the younger person might inevitably draw comparisons between himself and the older retiree, with evaluative conclusions about how he, the younger person, might be falling short of the accomplishments of the more senior person. Thus the normative and the comparative functions can often be difficult to separate.

We consider reference groups with normative and/or comparative functions as demanding groups that force their members to adjust their sense of self and actions according to the norms and standards of the groups. Though few studies have addressed how people negotiate their unique personal identity in the face of strong social demands toward social identity, through two qualitative studies based on Episcopal priests, Kreiner, Hollensbe, and Sheep’s (2006) found that members of a particularly demanding group conducted identity work to negotiate an optimal balance between personal and social identities. During this process, both integration tactics and differentiation tactics were used. Notably, normative or comparative reference groups could be either groups from which the individual was eager to copy behaviors and seek similarities or groups that were used to positively differentiate oneself from (Ashforth & Mael, 1989). For example, using the same workaholic colleagues as reference groups, some people acted as workaholics and continued working after retirement, while others forced themselves to behave differently and sought meaning beyond work. In general, however, both types of reference groups were used by individuals to make sense of their relationships with others and to guide their behaviors in everyday life (Lawrence, 2006). Therefore, we hypothesize that the more an individual identifies with a normative or comparative reference group, the higher likelihood that person will adjust his or her identity according to that group’s norms and standards.

The third function of reference group is a supportive function (Grote & Hall, 2013). Similar to the developmental network discussed previously, a supportive reference group member could also provide instrumental and emotional support for people’s retirement through the process of self-categorization and identification (Tajfel & Turner, 1985). For individuals, identification “engages more than our cognitive self-categorization and our brains, it engages our hearts” (Harquail, 1998, p. 225). By identifying with a group of people who are important to the individual, one might arouse positive affect, such as pride, excitement, joy, or love (Ashforth et al, 2008). Such positive affect might encourage people to be self-directed in their career transition, believe in their capabilities, and dare to search for meaning.

From those who are in an individual’s reference group, those who keep a concrete and close relationship with the individual—even if they don’t necessarily have direct interaction with him or her (Grote & Hall, 2013)—might provide more visible support for the individual’s retirement. Self-categorization theory (Turner, 1982) indicates that by categorizing people into groups, people may seek to maximize in-group similarity and intergroup distinctiveness. In-group bias might prompt favorability toward members, and people may perceive them as more trustworthy (Brewer, 1979; Tajfel, 1982). Therefore, in the scenario of retirement, people in the supportive reference group might provide instrumental or psychosocial support for individuals’ retirement and encourage them to take a self-directed retirement process and search for meaning. The most obvious of this supportive function would be mentoring, where the senior person provides career and/or psychosocial support for an individual going through a change (Kram, 1985). Other examples would be the support found in peer mentoring circles (Parker, Hall, & Kram, 2008) and in the encouragement provided by former teachers and respected family members.

The Dynamic Nature of the Retirement Process

Thus far, we have discussed a relatively static retirement experience episode, in which the process of retirement is an intentional process involving intentions determined by identity, trial behaviors growing out of those intentions, and success or failure experiences (outcomes). In such a single episode, identity could be shaped by self-comparisons and reference groups. Whether identities could lead to successful outcomes also depends on individual characteristics, such as PCO and relational characteristics, such as the quality and quantity of one’s developmental network. However, we also suggest that retirement process is not static but rather evolves and shifts over time. Therefore, individuals may experience multiple retirement episodes through their later lives.

Finding Meaning During the Retirement ProcessIdentity Development in Later Career Years

Figure 2. Identity development mechanism.

Figure 2 shows the identity development mechanism in the retirement process consisted of multiple episodes. As we discussed before, a current identity could lead to a retirement experience episode as showed in Line 1. If the outcome is positive, it will reinforce the old identity, which leads to such successful experience as shown in Line 2. If not, the person will revise his or her identity and try another retirement episode, as shown in Line 3. However, an old identity could also directly change into a revised new identity without retirement experience by comparing with multiple selves and reference groups, as shown in Line 4. Moreover, if the revised new identity doesn’t lead to successful experience, an individual may either search for a revised newer identity or go back to his or her old identity. This process could continue indefinitely.

For example, let’s say John, Ann, and James worked as engineers in Company X. John and James loved their work very much and derived their major identities from their occupations. When they reached the age to retire, both of them decided to continue to work as a parttime engineers after retirement (Line 1a). John felt happy in his new parttime engineering job because he could successfully use his experience to mentor other younger employees. Therefore, he reinforced his old identity as an engineer (Line 2a) and stayed in the first retirement experience episode. However, things were different for James. He didn’t feel as successful as he used to be in his new parttime engineering job because of the decaying energy. He searched for a new identity (Line 3) and started a new retirement experience episode. What about Ann? She didn’t continue to be an engineer after retirement. Rather, she directly compared current self as an engineer with multiple selves and realized that she always considered being a creative writer as her ideal self (Line 4). She started a new retirement episode and tried to write a novel (Line 1b). Unfortunately, she wasn’t good at writing and soon felt unhappy to be a writer. She struggled for a while and thought about whether she should return to her old identity as an engineer (Line 5) or whether she should find another newer identity based on comparing with other selves and other reference groups, which may be as a singer.

Retirement is no longer a one-time event; it involves a process that iterates in a feedback loop. As we mentioned, both PCO and developmental network could moderate the relationship between identity and a successful retirement outcome. In turn, retirement experiences people have could constantly change their PCO and developmental network through the process of both personal development and network development.

Notably, the PCO literature has a divergence of opinion as to whether PCO is a trait or a state. Many people assume that PCO is a relatively stable trait. (This is an open question, one desperately in need of empirical examination.) However, we would argue that PCO could be changeable as a result of life and career experiences. In support of this, Waters, Briscoe, Hall, and Wang (2014) found that when people moved from unemployment to reemployment, their levels of PCO declined. These authors suggested that PCO may have a dynamic nature that is apparently activated by the adaptive needs under different career conditions. In their study, when people regained employment and their careers were, once again, influenced within an organization, the need to be protean may have declined.

Such a process of PCO adaptation may involve some very serious self-reflection, probably aided by a good counselor or coach, because developing a stronger PCO represents a fundamental change in one’s identity and a shift to seeing the self as something that exists separate from one’s environment, where the self is capable of acting upon that environment and is not just subject to it (Kegan, 1982, 1995). So it would be a true personal development process. For example, a person could use retirement as an opportunity to make a major self-initiated change in his or her life, moving to a far-away place and starting up a totally new activity, perhaps opening a hobby store, thus making a vocation into an occupation. This could be the fulfillment of a lifelong dream. If the person makes this move, and if it is successful, and if he or she is happy with the new life, this might reinforce the person’s sense of self-direction and commitment to make future choices that are congruent with prized life values. That is, this success experience could increase the person’s PCO.

In terms of developmental networks, we argue that a successful retirement experience would reinforce both the quantity and the quality of developmental networks in the long term. Though studies on the evolvement of developmental network during the retirement process is limited, a literature review on the dynamics of social network in general has suggested three mechanisms of the creation, persistence, and dissolution of social relationships (Rivera, Soderstrom, & Uzzi, 2010). The first mechanism is the assortative mechanism, which states that the evolvement of social relationship depends on the compatibility and complementarity of actors’ attributes. For example, similarities in attributes, such as age, gender, religion, values, and education, may lead to the formation of best friendships; or differences in task-related skills and knowledge may lead to the formation of effective coauthorship. With the successful retirement experience, individuals may build and reinforce their relationship with others who share similar interests or backgrounds with (i.e., dynamics of homophily), or the successful retirement experience may demonstrate the instrumental benefits of heterogeneous relationships in an individual’s development network, reinforcing him or her to expend his or her network further (i.e., dynamics of heterophily). The second mechanism is relational mechanism, which indicates the importance of trust, information, and opportunities for interaction in the evolvement of social network. Prior successful retirement experience may enhance the trust and interaction between the retiring person and his or her mentors and produce more information about such career transition. Therefore the quality of developmental network would be enhanced. The final mechanism is proximity mechanism, which puts the source of network change at the level of actors’ social and cultural environments. For example, during retirement, individuals may jump to a new company, join a new club, or move to a new city. They may form new developmental relationships or maintain and enhance existing ones because of geographic/physical propinquity.

In sum, despite its stability in the relative short term, the retirement process is dynamic when examined over a longer term. Individuals may cycle through one retirement episode to another because of the deeply identity reconstruction or because of the personal and network development. This dynamic may also be influenced by the contextual factors, which we discuss next.

Communicating with the Contexts

Careers have been considered as continual change and learning processes across various boundaries within multiple social contexts (e.g., Arthur & Rousseau, 2001; Grote & Hall, 2013; Hall, 2002). This contemporary view of careers has led to calls for a more interactionist approach to careers research in which both individual and contextual factors are considered.

Broadly speaking, the major outcomes associated with retirement adjustment may be classified into financial well-being, psychological well-being, and physical well-being. However, retirement itself is rarely the cause of changes to well-being but instead is influenced by related factors or changes associated with the retirement process. A review by Wang and Hesketh (2012) argues that outcomes are impacted by factors within five categories: Individual attributes, preretirement job-related factors, family-related factors, retirement transition-related factors, and post-retirement activities. Rather than solely focusing on individual characteristics, there is increasing exploration of the role other factors such as retirement planning (Noone, Stephens, & Alpass, 2009), preretirement work context (Quine, Wells, De Vaus, & Kendig; 2007; Wong & Earl, 2009), sense of personal control (Kim & Moen, 2002), and psychosocial factors (Hedge, Borman, & Lammlein, 2006; Taylor, Goldberg, Shore, & Lipka, 2008) contribute to a successful retirement adjustment. For instance, Kim and Moen (2002) reported increases in men’s psychological well-being during retirement transition, especially if they had low morale prior to retirement. Additionally, depressive symptoms were found to increase with length of retirement period, particularly if the individuals experienced more initial depressive symptoms. A greater sense of mastery was not only predictive of higher morale in men but also of fewer depressive symptoms.

Furthermore, while financial, physical, and psychological outcomes can be analyzed independently, they are also interrelated. First, fiscal levels may impact quality of life and consequently health via nutritional intake, health-care quality, living conditions, and increased opportunity for leisure activities (Taylor & Geldhauser, 2007). Alternatively, financial difficulties may result in stress, anxiety, and feelings of helplessness, especially for retirees (Pinquart & Schindler, 2007; Reitzes & Mutran, 2004). Similarly, chronic health problems may result in greater health-care costs and limited ability to engage in bridge employment opportunities, leading to financial troubles (Shultz & Wang, 2007). Issues with health and everyday functioning could also limit one’s ability to engage in social interactions and physical activities, which has a deleterious effect on psychological well-being (Pinquart & Schindler 2007, Pushkar et al., 2010, van Solinge & Henkens 2008). Finally, poor psychological health may increase the likelihood of engagement in maladaptive coping strategies and decrease the sense of personal empowerment. For example, difficulties in adjusting to retirement and involuntary retirement have been associated with increased alcohol usage (Perreira & Sloan 2001; Zantinge, van den Berg, Smit, & Picavet, 2013). Low self-efficacy may likewise affect retirees’ ability to maintain and improve their finances (Kim, Kwon, & Anderson, 2005).

Although research has provided empirical support for the role of contextual influences in individuals’ retirement, research in this area is still needed to explore the effect of contextual factors on the psychological process of identity transition along with retirement events. Some studies have already made a contribution in this direction. For example, literature that considers retirement as identity crisis (Miller, 1965) assumes that individuals derive their identities from their jobs. Involuntarily leaving from a job would destroy individuals’ identities (Atchley, 1971; Waters, 2007). Moreover, consistent with the idea of identity continuity, Reitzes and Mutran (2006) found a lingering effect of identities, such as preretirement work identity, preretirement friend identity, and preretirement parent identity, in earlier retirement adjustment and self-esteem. Therefore individuals may make use of their preretirement identities to help their adjustment to new roles or stages in the life and career cycle.

Emerging Research and Future Directions

This article adopts a process viewpoint and expands on the “retirement as an adjustment process” put forward by Goodman et al. (2006). We focus on the psychosocial process of identity transition during retirement and argue that identity and retirement influence each other by communicating with self (e.g., PCO, self-comparison) and with others (e.g., developmental network, reference groups). It is a highly dynamic and interactive process that evolves over time and is embedded in certain context. Though focusing on retirement, these ideas could be applied to other settings that involve fundamental identity change, such as early career, unemployment, and career transitions across different jobs, levels, and functions.

Identifying the period of retirement remains an unsolved question. Though it’s easy to identify the specific, manifest, official moment when retirement occurs, spotting when identity begins to change is still unclear. Preretirement identities may still shape individuals’ sense of the self a few years after retirement events happen (Reitzes & Mutran, 2006). Or, in the case of mandatory retirement due to certain political or organizational policy, individuals may start to change their identities a few years before retirement, because they know exactly at what age they are required to retire and plan for that accordingly. Some research has empirically explored identity change in everyday “micro” transitions, such as the commute between home and work. For example, Hall and Richter (1988) have studied psychological versus physical transition, and they found that there were three distinct styles with which people make the switch between the work identity and the family identity: anticipatory, discrete, and lagged. In the anticipatory style, the person begins to move into the identity of the next setting before leaving the present one. An example would be a mother at home in the morning who “rehearses” her upcoming morning presentation while preparing breakfast for the kids. In the discrete style, this mother would not begin thinking about the office until she leaves home. And in the lagged style, she would take some time after arriving in the office to settle in, perhaps getting coffee and socializing with coworkers.

In terms of identity creation, through a grounded theory qualitative research, Ladge, Clair, and Greenberg (2012) explore how women begin to construct and react to images of possible multiple selves as professionals and mothers during the liminal period of pregnancy and found the intricacies of cross-domain identity transitions, which occur when an individual’s established work identity must be adapted to be integrated with a change in a nonwork identity. Future research may further explore identity development during career transition.

Another promising avenue for future research is to explore the meaning during retirement. One of the most significant qualities of retirement is that it is a period in life when people often (at least people who are fortunate and moderately privileged in terms of resources) have a wider range of life choices available to them than they did during their years of employment. Relieved of the constraints of earning a living and being a breadwinner for a growing family, the person can have the luxury of asking: what do I really want to do? The continuing issue at the retirement stage, to paraphrase Herb Shepard (1984) is: what is a life worth living? Retirement is indeed a process, one that can play out over a long period of time, and it is one in which the person is still trying to sort out what kinds of pursuits will provide the most meaning. The person is trying out a new identity, or identities, and a big part of the meaning question is: who is the real me? (Hall, Feldman, & Kim, 2013).

Baumeister and colleagues (Baumeister, 1991; Baumeister & Vohs, 2002; Baumeister & Wilson, 1996) help us with this question by identifying four basic needs that must be met in a person’s quest for meaning: (a) purpose, in relation to objective goals and subjective fulfillment; (b) efficacy, or making a difference in the world, measured in terms of those goals; (c) justification through values that the individual prizes; and (d) self-worth as gained by individual achievement or group membership. Achieving psychological success would entail striking a balance among these four needs. For example, one’s purpose must be noble enough to be intrinsically satisfying but not so lofty that it is unattainable and there is thus no efficacy. So, too, with values and self-worth: the purpose and efficacy have to be significant enough that their achievement provides important values expression and resulting feelings of self-worth. This self-worth would come both from one’s own subjective feelings of success and/or others’ observations and evaluations of success.

Even though one might be freed, at the retirement stage, from external demands such as supporting growing children or maintaining a large, expensive house in a community with good schools, there are still messages coming into one’s head about what he or she “should” do, as we have seen earlier in the discussion of the influence of social role senders, such as developmental networks and reference groups. A person may want to retire to a protean (i.e., values-driven, self-directed) life of focusing on personal interests such as genealogy or woodworking, yet he or she may be very aware of respected elder role models who have continued with their professional activities and involvements (e.g., working on projects, attending conferences) long after their organizational affiliations have ended. And both of these paths could potentially meet the person’s needs for purpose, efficacy, values expression, and self-worth. So it indicates another promising research topic: when should one be “self-anchored” (protean) versus focused on other’s expectations? Which is the most authentic path during retirement?

“Authentic” gets at what is true or real (Hall, & Mao, 2014), and authentic behavior is that which congruently expresses what the person deeply feels and values. Here the person must do some serious self-reflection, perhaps with the aid of a helper (counselor, therapist, peer coach, trusted friend), to sort out which values represented by the two possible paths are the most deeply held. And it can also be a time of experimentation (Ibarra, 2004b), when the person learns by doing just which path provides the most fulfillment and most balances Baumeister’s (1991) four basic needs for meaning. This is not a matter of discerning what is good versus what is bad for oneself, but rather a process of comparing good versus good, which is far more subtle and more difficult.

One of the insights that people might receive as a result of this kind of process of discernment is that they are really torn (conflicted) between what they want for themselves and what significant others want for them. It could amount to “self versus reference group.” And if the person opts to go for what he or she wants, is that being “selfish?” What is the difference between following one’s own internal compass, one’s “true north,” and being self-interested or egotistical?

There is no easy answer to this question. It requires additional discernment to achieve clarity. It involves thinking carefully about the consequences for others of each course of action. What effects would the various possible outcomes have for them, as well as for oneself? What personal needs is the individual really working on if he or she goes with a personal preference? Is it ego and recognition? Is it power or money? Is it gaining favor from key people? Or is it learning and growth and outcomes in which one can take pride and that will help other people in significant ways? We would call the latter motivations, which produce personal growth, social benefit, and personal pride—self-directed activities. And we would say that they are not selfish, as they have the potential to improve the actor and his or her efficacy and impact on the world.

As such, we wish to draw the distinction here between becoming more selfish and becoming more self-anchored during retirement. Selfishness implies a focus only on the needs of oneself at the expense of others, whereas self-anchoring implies that the person is more likely to draw upon his or her own inner compass (as compared to the messages and expectations of others) when directing his or her own activities. Being highly self-anchored does not automatically lead to being more selfish; rather it frees people up to use retirement as a time to connect with their unique, authentic selves—which may seek to contribute to others.

In a similar vein, a recent study by Gubler, Arnold, and Coombs (2014) addresses this issue. In their literature review of concepts found to be correlated with the PCO, they found the following:

Interestingly, proactivity, a concept that is arguably close to self-direction, has not been significantly related to PCO to date (e.g., Baruch & Quick, 2007). In line with the PCC, other reported correlates of PCO include continuous and team learning (Park, 2008, for self-directed PCO), learning performance, variety, innovation and altruism, cooperation, and openness to change (Gasteiger, 2007). Such findings support claims that having a high PCO is not equal to being selfish and self-centered (e.g., Granrose & Baccili, 2006; Hall, 1999) even though the [protean career concept] definition invites such assumptions. (Sargent & Domberger, 2007)(p. S28)

Practical Recommendations

As suggested earlier in this chapter, we posit that retirement could be thought of as a late stage of career that allows for an expression of self that makes people different from others. It is a time when one’s unique and authentic self is arguably easier to express and when the transition period from employment to retirement allows people to ask deep identity-based questions (Who am I and how do I want to define myself during retirement?), to change self-comparisons and find new ways to define self (i.e. self-redefining selves; see the example of the retired nurse who becomes a club treasurer).

Since expression of values is essential for building and clarifying identity (Katz & Kahn, 1978), expressing personal values during retirement may be important in building new subidentities. In studies of career transition, such identity clarification and values expression have been demonstrated to be beneficial for positive career outcomes. For example, Waters, Briscoe, and Hall (2013) found that PCO (self-directed and values-driven) was significantly, positively related to self-esteem and career growth during the career transition from employment to unemployment. In the scenario of retirement, the need to be self-anchored becomes more salient given that individuals can no longer rely on the organization to guide their career and shape their lives. Again, this does not equate to being selfish (the personal values one holds may be strongly to do with assisting others), but it does mean that people need to rely more on their own self initiative to create change compared to during their life working for an employer. Therefore, we see spiritual direction as a model for the kind of deep listening and client-centered helping that is needed by late-career people trying to reflect on their identities and values and think through how to live the next phase of their lives.

Conclusion: Retirement as a Time to Answer the Question, “Who Am I?”

This article reviews current literature on retirement; offers a theoretical explanation for how identity changes during retirement through communicating with the self, others, and the context; and calls for future research to address both the general psychosocial issues that occur during career transitions together with the more specific identity transition that is particular to the retirement process.

The necessity to be self-anchored during retirement gives people a chance to find personal meaning in ways that step outside of their previous working lives. It also provides the opportunity to develop relationships that are cultivated through new learning cycles. Initially, upon retirement people may use work colleagues as their reference group and may feel conflicted about not contributing to the labor market economy, but, over time, as they seek out new experiences and find new referent groups and relationships, they may find purpose and efficacy through unpaid contributions to society such as the earlier example of the retired investment banker who becomes a math teacher and forms new relationships with students as well as joining the local school board. The iterative retirement process means that the reference group and developmental networks that initially shape the intentions and trial aspects of the retirement process will change over time. People have the chance to “let go” of these relational forces as they cycle through iterative stages. By letting go of demanding groups, the retiree can negotiate an optimal balance between personal and social identities (Kreine et al., 2006). Indeed, retirement may be in the most optimum phase of one’s career to balance needs for purpose, efficacy, values expression, and self-worth. Therefore, it is time to articulate retirement as a career stage that allows for our true and authentic selves and supports the “life goes on” approach.


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