Growing Old in a Young Person’s Profession Pt. 1

May 6, 2022

One of the great pleasures of a long-lived career as a police psychologist is watching officers as they grow from wide-eyed, eager rookies to a more settled version of themselves. From recruitment to retirement, police work changes people and affects their families.

A little background:

Scholars at Boston College’s Center for Retirement Research studied a wide variety of jobs and concluded that the abilities of workers in professions requiring mental processing speed or/and significant analytic capabilities were likely to experience a noticeable decline in their abilities earlier than imagined. That means you, officer. Forget the stereotypes. Policing is no longer a blue-collar job, more dependent on physical than mental prowess.

Considering that May is Mental Health Awareness Month and Elder Americans Month, it seems like an appropriate time to revisit the emotional trajectory of a police officer’s career. What follows here is a map built on the observations of many cops and psychologists. It is not a timetable. Individual experiences will be affected by various unanticipated elements, not the least of which is luck.

Stage 1: The Applicant Phase

Applying for a police job is a strenuous, time-consuming task. By the time applicants successfully complete all the requirements, they feel like chosen members of an elite club. If they were merely interested in the job before, now they are in love with it.

Stage 2: The Academy

A time of great exhilaration, great stress, and accelerated change. Rookies are under constant scrutiny and evaluated on every aspect of their performance.

Stage 3: Field Training and Probation

The constant scrutiny continues. Competency and fitting in are major challenges. Policing is no longer just a job; it is fast becoming an identity. For some, this is their first exposure to people and a side of life they didn’t know existed. If they haven’t already, families may be starting to feel as though they are playing second fiddle to the job.

Stage 4: The Honeymoon Phase

The five or so years following probation can be a time of utter intoxication, novelty, and continued change. Officers may believe they could do this job forever. A few may be caught in a cycle of hyper-vigilance, exhilarated at work, bored at home. Families may notice their loved one is becoming cynical and acting like a cop 24/7.

Stage 5: The Early Middle Years

Sometime between years five and ten, officers start to settle down. They are likely now in their 30s with small children and a mortgage. Their confidence is high, but the novelty of the job has worn off, and the learning curve has flattened.

Youthful idealism is tempered by reality and a growing sense of one’s own limitations. More attention is paid to the boring and frustrating aspects of police work: report writing politics, flaws in the judicial system, and the media. Officers who once had a range of interests and activities beyond law enforcement may be over-invested in their cop role. Some may have accumulated a significant amount of work-related stress and exposure to trauma. Personal needs, such as shift assignments, pay raises, and retirement benefits, are more important than ever.

Stage 6: The Late Middle Years

Anywhere from 10 to 20 years on the job is a time of growing disillusion. Crooks seem to have the advantage. Neither the community nor the brass seems to understand or appreciate what cops go through. The person in the mirror may now wear glasses and have gray hair. Chronic work stress, sleep deprivation, job-related injuries, and trauma have taken their toll. The compensation and job security that were once a draw might now feel like a trap.

Stage 7: Moving Toward Retirement

Officers in the final phases of their careers have little left to lose. Many have reached their highest level of promotion. This is a crossroads. Cops can become bitter, or they can look for opportunities to reconnect with what they once found gratifying about the job: having fun, helping people, and working as part of a team. For some, this is a period of low stress. For others, the prospect of retirement causes their anxiety to spike.

Stage 8: Retirement

Most officers enjoy their retirement, living long, healthy lives. Their time is their own. They no longer need to be perfect. They have more time to spend with family and can reconnect with parts of themselves that were squashed by the job. Deferred dreams become a reality.

The challenge here is to replace the camaraderie of the police family. Some are happy to be free of the misery they’ve seen; others mourn the loss of power and influence. Now is the time to reevaluate early goals and achievements and take pride in their past service. It is time for families to readjust and repair frayed relationships. For those retiring prematurely under unplanned circumstances, with a history of poor coping or a duffle bag full of unprocessed trauma, the road may rocky, and professional help may be needed.

What’s next? In Part 2, I’ll be writing about ways you and your family can manage these psychological and emotional transitions in order to return to civilian life changed but undamaged.


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