Retirement life: How to find your post-work purpose

Create fulfilment and make life after retirement your best years yet.
Loading the player...

As Michele Burner approached 35 years as an English and IT teacher, she was more than ready to retire. At 55, she was desperate for a breather from the long hours and intense schedule. “I looked forward to not being bound to a structure any more and just having freedom from the demands of work,” recalls Michele, now 67. “The longer I worked, the better retirement looked!”

But when she finally crossed the career finish line, she found herself in a lonely house while her husband went to work.

“I didn’t want to stay home and watch TV and potter around,” she says. “I was on my own, [often wondering] what will I do today? My sister was still working and I didn’t want to visit my mother every day.”

Michele is hardly alone in feeling a loss of identity in the early days of retirement. In fact, retirement coach Jon Glass says many Australians wrongly assume that all that spare time will simply fill itself.

“In our culture, not many people are thinking about the emotional side of retirement [but] when you’re approaching retirement, think about what you want and need, and ask, ‘How am I going to fill my days?'” she says.

Loading the player...

Cross the bridge

If you’re excited about the prospect of having few responsibilities or to-dos, then Jon warns you’re probably going to feel a little lost. “Retirement is best thought of as crossing a bridge from work to retirement. You have to be thinking about, ‘What am I crossing the bridge to?'” he says. “I work with clients to strengthen their sense of meaning and purpose so they can cross that bridge to what they truly want to be.”

For Michele, that sense of purpose has come from doing freelance proofreading through the online platform Fiverr. “I’ve found a way to be useful, to make some money and to help me maintain positivity about life,” she says. “I usually work in the morning, then stop at lunchtime to go out for lunch, or go visiting or work on another skill I’m trying to develop.”

Find your joy

Whether you take pen to paper or go for a long nature walk, dedicating some time to deep thinking could help you get clarity about how you want to fill your retirement. “Retirement can be 10,000 days, which is a lot of days to be just turning on the TV,” Jon points out. “When you are at a dinner party and someone says, ‘What have you been up to lately?’ you want a good answer to that, rather than, ‘I watched some Netflix!'”

Take a trip down memory lane for clues. “What were you passionate about and what did you love as a child?” Jon asks.

“It might have been model cars or reading or travel, and could be a great clue as to what you can put at the centre of your retired life.”

Loading the player...

Create value

Whether you spent your younger years building your career or caring for a family, retirement can be the catalyst for an identity rethink. “When you were working, you probably had an identity, whether it was a fancy title on a business card or [through] your crisply ironed uniform,” says Jon. “The essence of a good retirement is finding your meaning and purpose – it could be family, giving back to the community or learning new things. Once you [identify] that, you can start to build your activities around that.”

It can also be helpful to consider how you can be useful to others. “There are so many ways of becoming useful,” Jon says.

“It could be through caring for grandkids, charity work, mentoring someone to help develop their talents, or maybe you mow someone’s lawns to help them out.”

Be brave

Once your retirement kicks off, check in with yourself regularly to confirm you’re still feeling fulfilled. “Evolve, learn, change and be flexible because what works for you this year might change,” Jon points out. “Retirement should be a sequence of experiments.”

And the beauty is that it’s difficult to have a catastrophic failure in retirement.

“If you ‘failed’ something in a work context, it could be disastrous and you could lose your job,” says Jon. “But if you walk into a Zumba class and get the steps wrong and feel embarrassed, you might just learn that Zumba is not for you!”

Related stories

A woman with small savings

Are you prepared for retirement?

Retirement. Snooze. Investments. Yawn. It’s ironic; while financial security is what most of us strive for, it’s an area where we’re likely to bury our heads in the sand. In 2007, The Financial Literacy Foundation reported around 31 percent of adults think dealing with money is boring, while another 48 percent found money matters completely […]