The Big Question in Retirement: Who Am I Now That I’m Not Working?

From a Wall Street Journal story by Stephen Kreider Yoder and Karen Kreider Yoder headlined “The Big Question in Retirement: Who Am I Now That I’m Not Working?”:

The first year in retirement is often the most difficult. But it also can set the stage for how you’ll fill the years ahead—both financially and psychologically. Stephen Kreider Yoder, 66, a longtime Wall Street Journal editor, joined his wife, Karen Kreider Yoder, 67, in retirement last year. In this monthly Retirement Rookies column, they chronicle some of the issues they are dealing with early in retirement.


The iPhone buzzed on my nightstand the other morning. “TIME SENSITIVE,” the screen shouted. “ENTERPRISE MEETING Today at 9:00 AM.”

It does that every Monday, and my heart leaps a bit each time. The vibration heralds the weekly confab of my group at The Wall Street Journal. Even though I left the job more than a year ago.

Yes, I’m still in denial.

Retirement has been a blessing, don’t get me wrong. I lost the press of daily journalism and won more time—and mental leeway—to travel, be with family, tinker in my workshop, read and generally goof off while making no excuses about it.

But I can’t bring myself to delete that smartphone notification. It’s one of the few links I have left to my old identity, and I’m not sure what my new one is.

A retired pastor friend assures me I’m in good company, existential-angst-wise. It has been three years, he says, and he’s still not used to it. But a nagging voice in my head tells me I ought to decide who I am pretty soon.

The voice is bringing with it a strong sense of déjà vu. I last heard it when I graduated from college with no clear career prospects. I clung for months to my nearly lifelong identity as a student by studying for grad-school exams and hanging around my old campus, which was pretty pathetic.

I’m in similar denial today partly because I think back fondly to many aspects of my career, and I sometimes wonder if I should have held on longer. There’s nothing like the buzz of the newsroom and the gratification that comes from helping shepherd stories into the world.

I recently joined some still-working former colleagues at a pub near my old office and found myself envying their chatter about work. “I don’t miss working,” I tell people who ask. “But I miss work.”

I’m also in denial because I quit work before thinking through what to do long term. As we wrote in our first column, Karen and I left our garage, mere hours after I retired, on a cross-country bicycle trip—for the adventure and to put off any second-guessing of my decision to retire.

The magic of adventure travel lies partly in stepping out of your workaday identity. When you’re a couple of 60-somethings pedaling a tandem bike through a West Texas desert or Kentucky holler, your oddball existence alone is enough of an identity to satisfy most anyone you meet.

“You guys are badass!” concluded a driver who approached us at a rest stop on the Continental Divide in Wyoming. That identity worked for us.

When we were traveling overland through Algeria this spring, locals seldom asked about our jobs. A typical exchange included: “American? Welcome!” That was enough: No need to ask ourselves who we were.

Back home, though, we can’t escape that annoying existential interrogatory: What do you do?

“Retired” doesn’t seem like an adequate answer. Citing my erstwhile profession feels like singing to a karaoke track of “Glory Days.” Listing my pastimes seems superficial. At a recent class reunion, many of our retired peers happily identified as grandparents, but that isn’t an option for us.

Many of our generation have probably tied our self images too closely to our careers. Perhaps retirement offers a fresh chance to take an unapologetic Popeye approach: “I yam what I yam, and that’s all what I yam.”

For now, I’ll leave the Monday meeting on my phone calendar. It’s also a reminder that I don’t need to snap to, anymore. I can just pull the covers back up and decide who I am later.


I’m glad to be retired. I never look back.

At least, that’s my line when Steve is wringing his hands about his lost identity. And it’s true, mostly.

I retired at the beginning of Covid, in 2020. It was clearly time to leave.

Until then, my favorite time of life was always doing what I was doing at the time. In my 42 years in education—teaching kindergarten through fifth grade in public and private schools in America and Japan, instructing university students, building a graduate teacher-ed program—I loved doing whatever was in front of me.

But suddenly, work wasn’t my favorite time. A switch went off. It became clear that other interests took precedence.

My favorite time, again, is what’s in front of me—retirement and the opportunities it holds. I sew comforters for refugees. I host church groups at our house. I volunteer at a prison, guiding inmates who teach their peers to read and write. I teach an adult at the public library to read the newspaper and write his memoir. I chat with our boys as often as I can, and hop on the tandem bike with Steve on yet another long-distance ride.

I no longer have the career that was the dominant part of my identity. Instead, I have a many-faceted identity.

Sure, there are mornings when I feel melancholy, often when the coming day feels unstructured or without purpose. On rare occasions, I stay in my pajamas all morning and wish I were back to my routine of setting off before dawn by bike to the ferry, across the San Francisco Bay and back on the bike for the last leg to the university. It was an invigorating commute, and I had heady work building a department that made an impact in the community.

But the pressure and the stress? The sleepless nights preparing for meetings and classes? I am happy to have left that behind, and the place it had in my identity. Now, if I’m not satisfied with my day, it’s my own fault.

My professional-educator self does emerge from time to time. This summer, my sister in the Midwest took me out for a long lunch before I caught a plane home in the evening. She was ready to launch a series of sessions with children in her church. She wanted my advice. How is the flow of this series? How could she link the lessons to the children’s lives, work with a wide age range, build anticipation each week?

My old self set right in, suggesting modifications to the series. It felt good to use my skills, built up over decades, to give immediate and specific advice. I didn’t need payment for this to still be part of my identity.

I was happy to be needed, listened to and valued. That’s what I miss about my former work-life identity. Perhaps I need to find more opportunities to crack out the old identity. But without the stress.

The Yoders live in San Francisco.

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