“Once you’ve been retired a couple of years, you realize you’ve lost your ‘work family,’” says a retired buyer for a large medical institution in Rochester, Minnesota. “I think we all intend to keep in touch after retirement, but truth be told, most don’t. Life changes.”

She is one of many respondents to our retirement questionnaire who lamented the loss of their work friendships. And what caught Roxanne’s and my attention is that nearly all these women were surprised that this happened.

What is this all about?

The need for social connection is something basic we all share. According to research scientist and author Emma Seppälä PhD, “…belonging is a fundamental human need. Given that we spend between 8 and 9 hours of our day at work, we have significantly less time to fulfill our social needs outside of work…The workplace, where we spend such a large portion of our time, is an ideal place to foster the positive connections we all need—not just for our well-being but also for our productivity and health.” (Psychology Today online article, 10/10/17)

Are workmates really friends?

It’s natural to think of our workmates as friends. It’s a unique bond—we see each other almost every day, we strive together to achieve common goals, we celebrate joint triumphs and commiserate about the micro-managing boss, we chat about our weekends and our favorite sports teams, we share how we’re feeling and disclose personal information.

But we may be misinterpreting the long-term significance or staying power of these relationships. Just because we share a workspace and some personal revelations doesn’t necessarily make them our friends. If our only common denominator is work, then this may be more of a temporary arrangement than a permanent alignment.

And this seems to play out for many of us when we retire. We instantly lose the social network of our co-workers. We go from seeing them daily—either in person or virtually, if we work remotely—to not at all. Our primary common ground—the work we shared—is gone. And many of us simply don’t think about the fact that we might lose these friendships when we retire. One of our respondents from Chesapeake, Virginia, who worked 33 years in the juvenile court system, shares her experience:

“I had expected to be immediately, deliriously happy about no longer working. But what I found initially was that I was ‘lost’ and feeling isolated. I had had a job that centered on constant interaction with co-workers and clients. Retired, I no longer had those daily interactions. In my naivete prior to retiring, I had envisioned getting together with former co-workers but found that their lives continued on as usual and it was only mine that had changed. I actually wondered if some of my work friends really didn’t like me after all, as they never seemed to have time to get together.”

The loss of work friends comes as a surprise

As this respondent articulates, the loss of work friends in retirement can come as a surprise—and it can cause hurt and disappointment. It’s hard not to take it personally and to realize that some friendships may not last.

I’m not saying that we can’t build genuine, long-lasting friendships at work. Just that if we do, it is a rarity—based on what we heard from the nearly 300 women who answered our questionnaire. They told us that if they do maintain friendships with prior workmates, it’s usually because they (the retirees) are the initiators of lunches and other get-togethers. They typically are the ones who email, text and call. So if you are willing to make the effort to nurture your relationships, you might be successful at keeping your work friends in your social circle.

So how do we prepare for changes in relationships with our co-workers when we’re thinking about retirement? First, we need to have realistic expectations so that we don’t set ourselves up for disappointment. Don’t expect all your work friends to keep in touch. Perhaps, before you leave, have a conversation with your closest workmates about their future availability and what each of you hopes will happen. And don’t forget, there is a silver lining—there are likely some co-workers you’ll be happy to leave behind!

The upside: Making new friends, deepening relationships in retirement

As you think about your post-work life, know that there are many opportunities to forge new relationships in retirement. You now have the chance to reconnect with longtime friends for whom you simply didn’t have time when you worked full time. You can widen your social circle and make new friends by joining clubs, groups or meetups, (re)starting a hobby, taking classes (exercise or learning), volunteering, meeting neighbors, attending local social events, getting a part-time job, becoming more active in your church/faith organization, or mentoring a younger person. Focus on expanding your social network to include people with whom you now have things in common.

There’s another upside: Most of our respondents say that the quality of their relationships is better in retirement. They have more time to devote to the people they care about. They’re more relaxed (i.e., less stressed) and present, so friendships are stronger and more meaningful. Relationships with spouses/partners, kids and grandkids get more attention. With more availability to socialize, they are meeting and making new friends through new activities. (Keep in mind that these responses were made pre-COVID—but we’re confident that we’ll all be able to socialize more freely someday soon!).

One of our respondents, a former ordained clergy woman from Nashville, Tennessee, describes it this way, “I think my relationships have deepened in a subtle way, because I am no longer in a hurry, being pushed and pulled by work responsibilities.”

A retired licensed clinical social worker from Harpswell, Maine, says, “I have more time to cultivate relationships that are important to me.”

It all reminds me of the saying, “People come into our lives for a reason, a season or a lifetime.” And a heads-up: work friends tend to be “seasonal.”


What do you think? If you’re retired, how did your work friendships evolve? If you’re not yet retired, what do you expect will happen to your work friendships? Please share!