After the retirement party, the applause and the handshakes, Jenny was left with the ticking clock at 10 am on weekday mornings and an unexpected feeling of envy at the world rushing around to get to work.
Jenny felt she had joined an amorphous mass of pensioners, sidelined by the rest of the world and condemned to be deprived of any recognition for everything she had achieved. She was suffering from one of the side-effects of retirement : loss of validation.
Validation from others feels good. It starts with the need for our parents’ reassurance and approval. Throughout life we identify ourselves as, for example, parents and/or with our professions, so that when retirement arrives and we have none of these roles, it is hardly surprising many of us are left with a feeling we are nobody at all. “The day after I retired my access card to the building expired,” said Ronald who had got to the top of an international institution. “Security wouldn’t let me in to collect some things. I’d crossed that threshold for 35 years and suddenly I was a persona non grata.”
Recognition works in two ways – people at work recognising who you are (your name and your personality) and the acknowledgment we receive from the contribution we make to a company, institution or service. Virtually everyone dreams of being applauded, and finding oneself in a new role where applause is highly unlikely is tough. Work provides structure, identity and a feeling of camaraderie, an “us-against-the-world” culture. With this gone, we are left with the feeling of having fallen off a tower that took many years to climb and from where we used to be able to see the way ahead.
“We had a seminar for those about to retire in our company, a big multinational,” said Arnold, “and on the first day this woman comes in and says we shouldn’t worry because they had a long list of reputable retirement homes the company recommended. On the second day I grudgingly admitted I had gone home the previous night feeling a bit depressed. I soon found out everyone had felt the same.”
Retirement is the great leveller, since there is nothing to distinguish us from those who have done jobs with less status (in our opinion) than ours. We may find ourselves rubbing shoulders with people who we secretly sneered at before and would never have dreamed of associating with. It is worse when we find they are mightily unimpressed with our past careers, and may even never have heard of the job we used to do. Younger people still working no longer have to show deference either, and we have no claim on their admiration. Retirement may be the first time in our lives when no one recognises our achievements, and no one cares if we learn a new skill. “I thought of learning Italian,” said Samantha, a former banker, “but then thought, well what’s the point? I’m not going to need to put it on my CV”.
Older people droning on about their past glories may have irritated us in the past, and now we realise what they were about. The ego needs to prove we still are somebody. This is why it is so dangerous to hook our self-esteem exclusively to our job and yet most men and an increasing number of women do just this. It is important to separate who we are from what we do early on, to develop an inner life and natural confidence and to value ourselves more for the way we live our lives than for what we do at work. Work is at its most basic simply a means of earning a living. Would we have worked all those hours, and all those years for free?
Maslow’s hierarchy of needs is a theory in psychology proposed by Abraham Maslow in his 1943 paper, A Theory of Human Motivation. Retirement is a moment when many of these needs are suddenly – often very suddenly – undermined and threatened. But if we examine the top of the pyramid, it is obvious that retirement offers the greatest opportunity for self-actualisation.
The people who we feel no longer recognise us after retirement will one day face the same issues. Retirement is the time when we really can offer our skills and wisdom for free. It is a wonderful time for self-exploration. More than anything, it is the time to recognise ourselves at last.