If you had to retire tomorrow, would you be ready? With the recent civil unrest and the anti-police climate in some cities, some officers are saying they’d be thrilled to get out of it. I don’t know that I fully believe them though. I’ve known cops to say they’re done only to wish they had something to go to when they pulled the plug. For most of us, police work isn’t just a job. It’s a sense of purpose, identity and a social network. So when you retire from it, you may have a gaping hole in these three areas of life unless you prepare for it.
How do you maintain a sense of purpose as you transition to retirement?
Many still feel like they’re on vacation for the first several months of retirement. But once that period passes, they become bored. We thrive when we have a sense of purpose. What interests and skills do you have or want to develop to continue with purpose? For some officers, they remain involved in their agency as peer supporters. Others share their wisdom and experience teaching at the police academy or police conferences. Some move on to second careers that support first responders (e.g., financial advisors, counselors and so on). Identifying this goal at least five years prior to retirement will allow you to prepare for this transition.
How does identity affect retirement?
Oftentimes, the first responder identity prevents police from retiring and, when there’s no choice, it can create an identity crisis. One first responder told me that he didn’t retire because he didn’t want to go from “hero to zero.” I was surprised to hear him say that he’d be a “zero” since he had a spouse and family. He didn’t see his value as a person aside from his first responder role, which was sad. He’s not an isolated case. Many officers have told me that their work is their identity. Without it, they’re lost.
Officers who have been through the process recommend deliberate efforts to build an identity independent of your police role. This means having hobbies, interests and friends outside of work. These should be developed and maintained throughout your career. Like financial contributions to your retirement account, you need to have a diverse identity/activity portfolio to ensure a healthy, emotionally prosperous retirement. I recommend you create a pie chart that reflects how you currently spend your time on an average week (work, family, recreation, health, etc.). Next, create the ideal pie chart. Compare the two charts, current and ideal, and pick one category that you want to improve. Determine one thing you can do in the next week to close the gap between where you are and where you want to be. Check your chart once a month to remain aware and to incrementally move toward a life by design instead of settling for a life by default. Also, create a pie chart of how you would want to spend your time during retirement, given that the removal of work will create a void. If you decide to continue working in some capacity, then deciding what kind of work you will do will be important to decide well in advance.
From the squad car to the couch
You know how you make fun of the old guys at Denny’s having breakfast at 5 a.m.? That’ll be you one day. As a cop, you’re used to being hopped up on adrenaline and living with a messed-up sleep schedule. That’ll require an adjustment. While still working, you may find that doing activities outside of work to counterbalance the physiological rollercoaster will make a smoother transition to a calmer home life. For instance, meditation can calm a frazzled nervous system. If the thought of meditation makes you think of “hippy dippy” people, think of it as a concentration activity. It’s best to start this practice as early as possible because your home life will (pretty much always) be calmer than your work life.
Will they forget about me when I retire?
Probably. Lasting friendships you make on and off the job can endure, but the bulk of the people you work with will move on with their working lives as you transition into retirement. This has nothing to do with your worth as a person, nor diminishes your contributions throughout your career. It happens to everyone in every profession.
At home, family is used to you being gone and may have built a life around your shift work. You might find it hard to adjust back into family life. The remedy is to maintain (or re-engage) your involvement in family life throughout your career. Also, make plans for increasing activities together when you retire. A lot of families only talk about the week ahead and then move on to being on their phones, computers or watching television. Periodically talking about your desired future and how you plan to get there financially and mentally is a must. If you don’t, you likely won’t get there.
If done well, retiring from policing will be a combination of sadness and excitement. Most transitions are tinged with loss which can be overshadowed by an eagerness to start the next chapter of your life. You can’t write that chapter without years of “character development” and planning your next adventure.
Dr. Stephanie Conn is a former police officer, a licensed psychologist at First Responder Psychology (www.firstresponderpsychology.com) in Beaverton, Oregon, and the author of Increasing Resilience in Police and Emergency Personnel.