Finding a Sense of Purpose When You're Retired
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Ageism

I Admit it. I'm Retired and Have Started to Feel Irrelevant

The challenging search to find a sense of purpose.

gif of neon lights flashing spelling the word relevant
Lisa Sheehan

I recently rescued a dying plant from the clearance rack at my local garden store. It was marked $1, but the nice cashier charged me only 25 cents when he saw the pathetic specimen. And, yes, I dropped another $40 to buy the plant a pot with better drainage, some fresh potting soil, fertilizer and a big bottle of Neem oil.

The thing is, I had to buy this plant (and all its rescue accoutrements) because I am determined to save it. I want to watch it flourish and bloom, as I’m sure it did once upon a time ago, perhaps when it was just a seedling and the world saw its potential.

Why do I have such a burning need to rescue a plant? I think it’s because I am retired and have started to feel irrelevant.

I had a high-energy 40-year career as a journalist trying to make a difference, hoping to right wrongs, effect change where I could and hold the rich and famous accountable for whatever they did to those who weren’t just like them. There was no injustice too small for me not to want to fix it. And now? Now there is a vast emptiness where my relevance used to live.

For me, it is at the core of what’s wrong with being retired. Sure, I know how to keep busy and I enjoy my midday naps as much as the next retiree. But I would be lying if I didn’t admit that I simply don’t matter as much as I once did. I see how my opinions are given less weight — if they are even sought at all. My contributions make less of an impact. I don’t feel necessary or, on many days, that I even have a purpose.

As a journalist, I spent a lifetime hoping to make the world a better place. Today, going to the supermarket is the focal point of my day. See what I mean? Staying relevant, to me, means feeling connected across generations to the news of the world and being in a position to help others in a meaningful way. It means I live my life in a manner that bestows value to it. I want it to matter that I still occupy space on this planet. 

Doesn’t everyone want that? And if they are retired, how do they get that sense of purpose? So, yes, I still want to be seen, to be counted. And truth be told, I miss feeling current — the kind of hip awareness that can come only from having younger people in your life. Our culture is rapidly changing, and despite being a voracious reader, I feel some days like the world is charging forward without me.

I don’t want to be the last person alive to understand why pronouns matter so much or that TikTok tweens and K-pop fans are a clever and growing force to be reckoned with on the world political stage.

I am very aware that to some people this essay will sound like a frivolous whine. After all, I’m in good health and am financially comfortable, and many other people my age can’t say the same. But the problem is that when we prepare for our retirement, the bulk of the planning focuses on just those two factors — health and wealth — and very little thought is given to the emotional adjustment required when we step off the playing field and move to the sidelines.

I fear that I left my relevance back on the field. I am apparently not alone in this. A Transamerica retirement study in 2017 found that 97 percent of retirees who said they were happy also said they still had a strong sense of purpose. And, in a nutshell, that’s what’s missing from mine.

Let’s face it: Only the diehards want to play golf or go fishing every day. Sure, it’s nice to be free of the daily grind and the constant exhausting effort it took to juggle family and work. No, I do not miss the rat race. Volunteering, I’m told, isn’t a bad route to take if it satisfies your itch. Sure, we all could get more involved in our communities: work for elected officials who share our agendas, deliver meals and cheerful banter to shut-ins, join the ranks of those who read to children, walk shelter dogs or clean up the beaches and hiking trails from the slobs who leave it a mess.

But some of us are too impatient for any of those things and/or don’t want to be a small cog in the big wheel. (And personally speaking, I have yet to meet a charity-thrift-store volunteer who wasn’t there primarily to get first dibs on the good donated stuff.)

Without question, the world still needs improvement — and so do I. My pledge to myself in this new year is to fill the hole in my life that retirement created. Anyone can stay busy, but not everyone can stay relevant. I’m going to stick to writing to make a difference and have dusted off my old book proposal in the hope of finding an agent. And clearly, it’s not a minute too soon: Sadly, the plant has died.

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