November 26, 2018

Identity and Retirement

Headshot 3.13 cropcompressBy Karen Sternheimer

Sociologist Michelle Pannor Silver’s new book, Retirement and its Discontents: Why We Won’t Stop Working, Even if We Can, is based on interviews with retirees, many of whom are struggling with the transition to retirement. Many of her informants who held prestigious positions as doctors, CEOs, and professors said the biggest challenge they faced was related to their sense of self.

If a big part of one’s identity comes from work, who are you if you are retired?

This challenge is complicated when work occupies most of one’s time, often to the detriment of family and maintaining social ties outside of one’s field. For occupations that demand long hours while offering titles with a great deal of prestige, leaving the field can leave people unsure of what to do and of who they are.

Silver notes that this is especially the case for those in medicine, which she describes as “a work culture [that] favors the individual who is willing to work at 110 percent capacity…who are expected to be fully dedicated to their patients at all hours” (p. 35). Retirees she interviewed often reported feeling unsettled by having so much free time after a lifetime of busyness.

Retired CEOs reported similar experiences, noting that the absence of a support staff that one grows accustomed to made the transition all the more difficult. One respondent described retirement as “like being captain and then kicked off the football team” (p. 63).

A number of people she interviewed expressed missing the feeling of accomplishment they achieved through their work and felt sad that they were less relevant to former colleagues. Many of Silver’s informants either found new work, or in the case of college professors, continued their work after retirement.

While the majority of her informants’ struggles are not primarily financial, she interviewed retired athletes, all of whom were quite young at the time of their retirement from their sport. Amateur athletes, like Olympians, made little to no money from participating in sports and now had to find new ways to fill their days and earn a living.

This was especially difficult if their participation in school was limited due to their training schedules. Like the older retirees, they too faced difficulty in managing their time without the structure of practice. Silver interviewed a retired Olympic gymnast who had been training since the age of 5, and when she retired at 21 at first she felt lost:

For many years prior, her daily schedule was as structured and regimented as her team’s complex Olympic routine. Her meals were planned, cooked, and served for her (with each portion carefully allocated). Her coaches arranged every aspect of the team’s travel and monitored the girls’ every move. Retirement was disorienting (pp.97-98).

Ironically, the group that seemed to enjoy retirement the most were homemakers who saw themselves as retired. While this definition of retirement is unorthodox—retirement suggests the end to participation in the paid labor force—Silver observes that for women who chose this identity it “offered…the opportunity to embrace a new title and a socially preferable status” (p. 192). While opportunities in the labor market were likely much more limited when these women came of age, the shifting status of women’s workplace opportunities offer identity and prestige to participants. The “retired” identity blends the homemakers’ experiences with that of their professional counterparts.

Could it be that retirement is more difficult in some ways for people with careers that offered prestige and a sense of identity than for workers in fields with less occupational prestige? This research suggests that the decline in status that comes with high occupational achievement might make the transition more challenging for some.

For many other people, the biggest challenge may be funding retirement in the first place. A 2014 Rand Corporation study found that while overall about 71 percent of Americans are financially on track for retirement, that percentage is much lower for those who are single; about 55 percent of single people versus 78 percent of married people are financially prepared. Likewise, the percentage is higher for people with college degrees, especially compared with those who did not finish high school (83 versus 54 percent).

Silver’s qualitative study gives us a snapshot of how people’s identities are shaped by work, and how those identities undergo a transition when their working lives end or change. As Silver concludes:

These retirees demonstrated an eagerness to seek out new titles, when old ones were removed or forced away from them. …Their stories illustrate how we struggle with who we are until we are able to adapt and make our new title align with our ambitions and sense of self (pp. 199-200).

This research reminds us that identity is an ongoing project; that the creation of the self is both social and continues throughout adulthood. It also brings up important questions to consider: why is work such a central part of identity for some? Is work as important in the construction of self for people across occupations?


Everyone faces this fear but thanks for having this article made me realize that I need to save as much as I can save so that when my vision becomes dim and my strength have lessened then I can say that I am prepared.

Thanks Karen for interesting share!

Thanks for sharing!

We have seen people retire and fall into depression because most of the time even the friends they identified with during their working years no longer see any value in them.

Verify your Comment

Previewing your Comment

This is only a preview. Your comment has not yet been posted.

Your comment could not be posted. Error type:
Your comment has been posted. Post another comment

The letters and numbers you entered did not match the image. Please try again.

As a final step before posting your comment, enter the letters and numbers you see in the image below. This prevents automated programs from posting comments.

Having trouble reading this image? View an alternate.


Post a comment

Become a Fan

The Society Pages Community Blogs

Interested in Submitting a Guest Post?

If you're a sociology instructor or student and would like us to consider your guest post for please .

Norton Sociology Books

The Real World

Learn More

Terrible Magnificent Sociology

Learn More

You May Ask Yourself

Learn More

Essentials of Sociology

Learn More

Introduction to Sociology

Learn More

The Art and Science of Social Research

Learn More

The Family

Learn More

The Everyday Sociology Reader

Learn More

Race in America

Learn More


Learn More

« In Memoriam: Peter Kaufman | Main | A Tribute to Peter Kaufman »