"The Great Resignation" generally refers to workers who have exited the workforce, almost entirely by choice, during the pandemic. The reasons for resigning from a job are varied: Some workers are simply fed up with low wages, others (mostly women) cite issues with child care, others don't like menial work, and still others may not want to return to a physical workplace after working remotely from home. Whatever the reasons, the outcome is the same: American workers have left traditional work in droves, accounting for millions of open jobs and "Help Wanted" signs everywhere.
"The Great Retirement" overlaps with "The Great Resignation" in the sense that a considerable percentage of older workers may have decided that the pandemic was the right time to resign from their jobs. Rather than continue to work in traditional jobs, these older workers chose a number of different paths, such as part-time work, freelance work or "gig" assignments, volunteer work or some combination thereof. Some older workers may have decided to stop working altogether and retire.
About a year ago (August 2020), the Schwartz Center for Economic Analysis at the New School looked at some numbers and they turned out to be pretty astonishing:
- From March through June 2020, 2.9 million workers ages 55-70 left the labor force, 50 percent more than the 1.9 million older workers who left the labor force three months after the Great Recession began in 2007.
- Of the 2.9 million older workers who left the labor force, the majority (2.4 million) lost their jobs between March and June. The other 500,000 were already unemployed in March.
- Between March and June 2020, 38 percent of unemployed older Americans gave up looking for work and left the labor force.
According to the Schwartz Center, "Several indicators show 2.9 million older workers who exited the labor force are unlikely to return. ...Under normal economic conditions, older workers who leave the labor force due to layoff are unlikely to re-enter the job market and face having to retire earlier than planned. ...Additionally, older workers who lose their job take nearly twice as long to find a new job compared to young workers. Even if jobless older workers find a new job, they can expect their new wages to be 23-41% less than their previous earnings."
One year later, in August 2021, an article by Tammy La Gorce in The New York Times confirmed that things haven't changed much for these older workers. La Gorce writes that "retiring during the pandemic has inflicted two traumas...most felt they were forced out of work before they wanted to go" and the majority "were financially unprepared." Teresa Ghilarducci, a professor of economics and policy analysis at the New School for Social Research, told La Gorce, “A lot of people were pushed out of their jobs... It used to be that employers would let the ones they just hired go first in a recession, but this time older people who have been in their jobs the longest have been hit hardest.”
So "The Great Retirement" may turn out to be not-so-great for millions of older workers who didn't intend to retire at all. Instead, many have been involuntarily retired from a job they intended -- and needed -- to keep. The obvious reason may have been the pandemic, but the less obvious reason was that some employers used the pandemic as cover to pare down their employee ranks. The most vulnerable workers, the older ones, were the first to be let go. Numbers don't lie.