Andrea Jones hadn’t yet settled on a date to retire from her customer service job at United Airlines when Newark airport started looking like a ghost town in March 2020. After 28 years with the carrier, she still loved her work. But by the end of that month, she had hung up her blue uniform for the last time. She is still struggling with a sense of loss.
“I wasn’t at all ready to leave,” she said. “It hit me right between the eyes.”
Ms. Jones, 68, of East Windsor, N.J., retired to protect the health of her husband, George, who has multiple myeloma, a form of cancer. Fortunately, the Joneses had a nest egg, and United offered a retirement package that enabled her to keep their health insurance.
Patricia Scott has not been so lucky. Ms. Scott, a special-education teacher in Stockton, Calif., retired in January to preserve her own health. A grandmother of 10, she survived breast cancer in 2016; her oncologist told her she couldn’t risk catching Covid-19 by returning to the classroom. Now, at age 66, she is on financial quicksand. “My income is half what it was,” she said. She is single and in debt. “I’m stressed, I’m depressed and I’m terrified.”
For many of the nearly three million workers ages 55 to 70 who have left their jobs since March 2020, retiring during the pandemic has inflicted two traumas. Like Ms. Jones and Ms. Scott, most felt they were forced out of work before they wanted to go, said Teresa Ghilarducci, a professor of economics and policy analysis at the New School for Social Research. Among that subset, the majority, like Ms. Scott, were financially unprepared, Ms. Ghilarducci said.
research from the New School, far more older workers retired during the pandemic than during other recessions. After the 2008 financial crisis, for example, 1.9 million older workers left the labor force in the first three months of the recession. In the first three months of the pandemic last year, 2.9 million left the work force. The latest data shows that 1.7 million of the newer wave of retirees left despite financial uncertainty, Ms. Ghilarducci said.
Their departures generally were not a bid for a few extra years of bird-watching. “A lot of people were pushed out of their jobs,” Ms. Ghilarducci said; she attributed that push partly to age discrimination. “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.”
Lack of enforcement of anti-discrimination laws was a factor, she said. So was what some employers saw as a rare opportunity created by the pandemic to get rid of older workers, who are perceived to be less productive and more expensive.
Regardless of the reason, the new army of reluctant retirees, disproportionately made up of Black workers and those who lack a college degree, according to June data from the New School, is in trouble. One key reason: Debt rates among Americans 65 and older are the highest they’ve ever been, Ms. Ghilarducci said. And they are likely to rise as more people are forced to draw down their assets to make ends meet. Collecting Social Security earlier than anticipated will add to their vulnerability, since claiming earlier will permanently reduce their benefits.
Even for people with a financial safety net, the hurdles can be significant. “There’s a lot of stress that comes with having retirement forced on you,” said Malcolm Ethridge, a financial adviser in Washington who has several newly out-of-work older clients. “It takes time to get past the disruption.”
Jovan Johnson, a certified financial planner in Atlanta, said Ms. Scott and others in her situation should start looking for a pro bono financial adviser who can help make sense of their money. “There are a lot of us out there who will help people out for free during a crisis,” he said. He recommends searching sites like the XY Planning Network.
The primary benefit of sitting down with a professional may be relief from panic, he said. But the 15 new retirees who have contacted him for pro bono help since the pandemic started, among them nurses and teachers, have also gained a better understanding of how to manage limited funds. “Everybody deserves to have a plan,” he said.