Renegotiating Identity as We Age by Jen Gippel, PhD
The role of creativity and life-long learning.
Image by Nicolettewever.com
Recently the New York Times retired the assignation of Op-Ed and created a new label for this segment called “Guest Essays.” Aged 50, the op-ed is enormously popular; however, the NYT rightly sees the tag as a relic of a pre-digital age. While the NYT says the underlying mission remains the same, I’m sure you’ll agree that “op-ed” and “guest essay” convey different identities!
We too are creating and recreating our identity over our entire life. Often our core identity is labeled according to our main occupation: writer, artist, teacher, parent, etc. We will recognize sub-identities within that occupation: creative writer, modern artist, cool teacher, strict parent! These labels are important. For one thing, they tell others something about us.
Naturally, our identity is far more complex than this. Identity is the multilayered lens through which we see ourselves, how others see us, and how we think others see us. Overall, our identity (or our many identities), reflected in labels, suggests a ‘kind of person’ and is part of the narrative we create to explain ourselves. Op-ed sounded like “clubby newspaper jargon” and so it is replaced with a new label aiming to alter its identity and convey “inclusivity.”
So too, our identity is constantly shifting and reshaping under the influence of internal and external factors. Sometimes our core identity and the label that goes with it is suddenly lost, perhaps via redundancy or retirement, or children leaving home, amongst other things. Even though who we are underneath the label hasn’t fundamentally changed, we can feel bereft as if we’ve lost a part of ourselves. Suddenly, the creative opportunities we had to grow and reinforce our identity by learning on the job, demonstrating our competence, offering our ideas, and experiencing satisfaction and pride in what we do, disappear.
If we don’t work to create new identities and opportunities, we diminish our opportunity to feel good about who we are and what we do.
Although identity is important for the whole of life, I focus here on the second half of life. Like the NYT creating a new identity for its op-ed at 50, it’s common for people to “retire” their main identity later in life, particularly on leaving the paid workforce. Unfortunately, many fail to create vibrant and interesting new ones.
As we age, identities are often bestowed on usLike op-ed to guest essay, we too have identities bestowed on us as we pass through life stages. Those commonly ascribed to older citizens are often about ill-informed stereotypes such as ‘dependent’ and ‘slow to learn.’ Many see ‘leisure’ as a role for retirees; although, this role is mostly seen as pleasure-seeking without deeper meaning. ‘Retiree’ or retired (followed by previous occupational role) is another common role that comes to mind; many of these labels, at least in the West, are considered empty, or unproductive roles.
Other identities we naturally continue are about relationships such as husband, wife, grandmother, grandfather, carer, etc. However, even these change and can suddenly disappear. Another popular identity for elders is that of ‘teacher,’ especially when adopting the role of mentor for younger generations.
Whatever identity you have or seek, you don’t have to restrict yourself to common or stereotypical identities. For example, one may go from accountant to artist, or professor to published author, or dentist to dog musher (my personal favorite). Identity, after we retire, is important because it bolsters self-esteem and the belief that you still have something to offer. Learning new things that involve complexity and challenge, gives a sense of pride and purpose in accomplishment.
Renegotiating or creating an identityBy acquiring new competencies and knowledge, anyone can forge new social and/or professional identities as the old ones are relinquished. This process has a lot to do with our attitude, creativity, and lifelong learning.
When I was coerced into ‘voluntary’ early retirement, my identity disappeared overnight. One day I’m an employed academic. The next I’m — what? I didn’t know and it was disturbing. I certainly wasn’t ready for the label of ‘retired.’ As time went on I created ways to retain the identity of ‘academic,’ which remained important to me. However, at the same time actively seeking new ones. Naturally, this process involved reflecting on what I really loved in all areas of my life, then and in the past, and I gave myself time and space to imagine a future that I wanted to inhabit.
For me, research writing was my favorite role as an academic. Also, I’d always wanted to write more personal style pieces but never had the time. I knew little about the techniques and skills related to creative non-fiction, so I set about reading and learning everything I could and just started writing every day. This writing has now grown into a passion and if people ask me now, “what do you do?” I confidently reply with any or several of the following identities, “I’m a writer, editor, teacher of writing skills, Financial Economist, and Creativity scientist.” These are the things I not only “do” but over years have built up considerable expertise and continue to do so. Also, I know that over time, I will keep some, relinquish others and adopt new ones.
As we age, I believe that forming new identities is like replacing the mask of age with a different mask — the one you have created for yourself.
Ways to strive for mastery
The process of developing expertise or a new interest involves intense learning. This process will not only enrich your mind but will stimulate creative ideas and may lead to a new passion and new identity. It requires an open mind ready to imagine possibilities and take a few risks. It also requires an engaged and curious mindset that is continually questioning and learning.
First, identify challenges and actively seek opportunities for learning. By participating in active learning you collect information and knowledge relevant to realizing a vision or dream. If not, then at the very least it’s fun.
Here are some less common suggestions for active learning.
Research all aspects related to your interests: Ask, what do I already know and what do I wonder?
Actively listen to a TED talk. Make a note of what you learn and any ideas that came to mind as you listen.
Join a crowdsourcing initiative to provide data, ideas, reviews, solve problems, be a citizen scientist, etc. There are many opportunities to suit a wide variety of interests.
Attend a group, workshop, or conference connected to hobbies or personal interests.
Seek opportunities for continuing education. My journey to a Master in Creativity Studies began with a large open online course. Choose a course related to your vision, or even marginally related. The important thing is to do what seems interesting to you.
Without agency, the awkwardly moving caterpillar becomes a beautiful, graceful butterfly. We, however, at any age can renegotiate the identities we have and for some reason want to, or have to, let go of them. We have the agency to learn and acquiring mastery helps in the process. However, achieving mastery, like anything worthwhile, is hard work. But for those who pursue life-long learning, it is deeply rewarding.