Why millions of older Americans are retiring early – PBS NewsHour

Among the reasons for the current labor shortage in the U.S. is the exodus of older workers retiring early during the pandemic. Economics correspondent Paul Solman reports.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    We have been hearing for months about jobs going unfilled in the U.S., putting stresses on employers and the overall economy.

    It turns out there are several reasons for this, and one of them is early retirement.

    Economics correspondent Paul Solman reports on the exodus of older workers during the pandemic.

  • Thomas Fisher, Retiree:

    COVID really pointed out to my — to me and to my wife that life was tenuous. It was fragile.

  • Veronica Primus, Retiree:

    In order to preserve my sanity, I needed to leave.

  • Norma Jasso, Retiree:

    My daughter asked me early last year if I would take care of her baby. She said: “Mom, I am going to need your help.”

  • John Manley, Retiree:

    It was like, anybody your age is liable to die if you get it. And I just was afraid of it, I said, I’m not going to stay. I can’t.

  • Paul Solman:

    You have heard plenty, especially from employers who can’t find workers, about the Great Resignation. But here’s what’s also happening, the Great Retirement.

    Since February 2020, some 2.6 million more Americans than expected retired.

  • Courtney Coile, Wellesley College:

    The pandemic has interrupted what was a decades-long trend towards later retirement in the United States.

  • Paul Solman:

    Wellesley economist Courtney Coile.

  • Courtney Coile:

    So, if we look at the population ages 65 to 74, the share that are employed in the last three months of 2021 is 7 percent lower relative to the share that was employed in the last three months of 2019.

  • Paul Solman:

    So, why? Well, a few main reasons.

    One, workers leaving in-person jobs to avoid catching COVID-19; 65-year-old Claudia Mitchell was an instructional aide.

  • Claudia Mitchell, Retiree:

    I weighed it out, and I just thought, no. I’m not going to take the risk.

  • Paul Solman:

    Would you have stayed on if there hadn’t been the COVID pandemic?

  • Claudia Mitchell:

    I think I would have, because it made me feel really good going into work every day.

  • Paul Solman:

    John Manley drove a school bus for 25 years.

  • John Manley:

    I just loved it. It was like having 100 grandchildren.

  • Paul Solman:

    He hadn’t planned to retire, but, at 77, he was especially vulnerable to serious illness.

  • John Manley:

    Being cooped up in a large metal container with a whole bunch of children, 40 or 50 of them at a time, it was starting to look like a — just not a wise thing to do.

  • Paul Solman:

    Donna Booth retired from her job managing a home for the developmentally disabled at age 74.

  • Donna Booth, Retiree:

    I was frightened. And I did have nightmares. And it was — it was just affecting everything about my life in terms of like, I don’t want to die for this.

  • Paul Solman:

    Yes, COVID hastened her exit, but not just because of the danger. The job had morphed into more than she could bear.

  • Donna Booth:

    I became a first responder, and I had a lot of vulnerable people and staff members working for me. And the paperwork increased. The demands increased. And so it became a very, very different job.

  • Paul Solman:

    Sixty-nine-year-old grandmother Veronica Primus spent 48 years working in schools. A similar thing happened to her job.

  • Veronica Primus:

    I could have worked longer. I feel like I’m healthy, I’m vibrant. But it was just tearing me down. I just couldn’t handle it.

  • Paul Solman:

    Primus was working as a literacy coach, until online learning drove her over the edge.

  • Veronica Primus:

    I would go visit the Zoom classes and see children jumping up and down on the bed while you’re trying to teach a lesson. And you — teachers can’t do anything but just say, please be quiet. Sit still.

  • Paul Solman:

    For some, caregiving needs drove them to retire. Helping her daughter drew 63-year-old Norma Jasso from her 17-year job at San Diego Gas and Electric.

  • Norma Jasso:

    I was thinking, I have lived two-thirds of my life. I have one-third to go. What do I really want to do with that time? And taking care of the baby, helping my daughter is critical.

    If my daughter had not asked for help, I would still be working, and I would have not have known how lovely it would have been to not have to work.

  • Paul Solman:

    In fact, we heard something like this again and again, that COVID raised the big question: What is the meaning of life?

    It’s something consultant Tom Fisher, age 57, and his wife asked themselves during the pandemic.

  • Thomas Fisher:

    It really pointed out to us that, if the world were to end today and with these — under these conditions, would we be happy that our last days potentially were spent in this manner, right, working 24 hours a day, traveling everywhere.

    I think it really just catalyzed a reevaluation of what our ambitions and what our goals for ourselves were.

  • Paul Solman:

    So, Fisher retired and is writing a book about his grandfather.

  • Thomas Fisher:

    It’s a very rewarding time. You know, it’s been an incredibly satisfying endeavor.

  • Paul Solman:

    Fisher also sells parts for restoring old cars to supplement his savings.

    And how are others able to afford earlier-than-planned retirement? Well, despite the stock market’s recent tumult, a long run of historic asset gains certainly helped. Norma Jasso ran the numbers before taking the plunge.

  • Norma Jasso:

    I looked into my retirement plan, and it turns out the market was doing great. Even though I didn’t have a financial planner, things worked out for me. And here I am, taking care of little Rafael.

  • Paul Solman:

    Donna Booth and her husband took advantage of the booming house market.

  • Donna Booth:

    Because of COVID, the housing prices just jumped up. And so we put our house on the market. In one day, 10 people came and offered us cash for our house higher than what we were asking.

  • Paul Solman:

    They have happily downsized to an apartment. As for Veronica Primus…

  • Veronica Primus:

    I was not a person who saved a whole bunch of money because I had four children to raise as a single parent myself.

  • Paul Solman:

    And yet Primus is also making it work.

  • Veronica Primus:

    I do have a retirement, thanks to the state of South Carolina and Social Security. And my daughter lives with me with her daughters, and so we all sort of work together.

  • Paul Solman:

    People learned to spend less during the pandemic, says Wellesley’s Coile.

  • Courtney Coile:

    Because they have had to live a little bit differently during the pandemic, less travel, fewer meals out, and so on, people have had more experience to figure out what kind of expenses might be more discretionary, and that might also affect their planning going forward, thinking about how much income they really need to have the lifestyle that they want.

  • Paul Solman:

    Right. So I can continue to live on this reduced budget.

  • Courtney Coile:

    Because I have been doing it for two years.

    (LAUGHTER)

  • Paul Solman:

    But here’s a problem: The Great Retirement is bad news for a labor-crunched economy.

  • Courtney Coile:

    Overall, it means that the economy is operating below its potential, because we could have a bigger labor force and we could be producing greater GDP with that labor force, gross domestic product.

  • Paul Solman:

    In normal times, about a quarter of retirees end up unretiring or returning to the labor force. The data are still coming in, but, says William Rodgers of the St. Louis Fed:

    William Rodgers, Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis: There is some evidence more people are staying retired. People are doing what we teach in public policy school. It’s called benefit/cost analysis. And, right now, the benefits do not exceed the costs.

  • Paul Solman:

    Among the costs of working, the risk of getting sick, undesirable conditions, stress.

    I built this little cost/benefit scale. It was pretty close before, if you didn’t have that great a job, and, suddenly, the cost goes like that. And now you just say, I’m staying retired. Is that it?

  • William Rodgers:

    Yes. People are changing their calculus around how they want to spend their time.

  • Paul Solman:

    The scales could tilt back, right?

  • William Rodgers:

    Yes, the scales could switch back if economic growth continues, the Omicron fades away and we don’t have another significant variant in the winter. All those feeding together could lead to a calculation that, well, the benefits exceed the cost. I want to jump back in.

  • Paul Solman:

    As for the folks we interviewed…

    Are you thinking of going back to work at another job?

  • Donna Booth:

    I probably will. I just — I love working, and I love being valuable. I love being needed. I don’t want to play golf.

  • Paul Solman:

    But others do not plan to return.

  • Veronica Primus:

    Not full-time, because the culture has changed dramatically.

  • Claudia Mitchell:

    I don’t know if I would go back to a paid position.

  • John Mandley:

    No, I don’t really think I will ever be back.

  • Paul Solman:

    So, a personal decision for every retiree, but one that could result in fewer workers, and thus dampen economic growth.

    For the “PBS NewsHour,” Paul Solman.