As pandemic rocks economy, more and more American workers are calling it a day

Prior to the coronavirus pandemic, Antonio Fernandez, 64, had considered staying at his job at Chevron in Houston for perhaps another five years.

“I probably think I had at least five more years to work,” Fernandez said of his role with the oil giant. “I wasn’t looking forward to retirement.”

But as with so many other things, the pandemic is redoing the playbook for when to retire in the United States.

Retiring earlier was a clear trend in the pre-pandemic era of the world’s largest economy, sometimes out of preference, but often out of necessity.

Some have chosen to remain employed until the age of 70 to keep their benefits in a country where health care costs are noticeably high. In other cases, people were forced to continue working after their savings were hit by the 2008 financial crisis.

But since spring 2020, millions of people over 65 have left the workforce, often earlier than expected.

In June alone, more than 1.7 million more older than expected workers retired, said Teresa Ghilarducci, work and retirement specialist at the New School For Social Research in New York.

After being fired last fall, Fernandez applied for other jobs, but was unsuccessful.

“I have mixed feelings,” he told AFP, adding that the company mainly kept lower paid staff, a change from its approach to previous downsizing.

“In the end, while this may not seem fair, it is not a bad outcome for those like me who are fortunate enough to have enough years of service and to be relatively close to retirement to receive a lump sum pension increased by low interest rates. “

– Not ready to go –

Starting early was also difficult for Brenda Bates.

After 43 years working at a nursing facility in Florida, her job became much more taxing during the pandemic when she had to wear a mask and goggles.

Bates suffered a transient ischemic attack, a stroke-like incident with lingering effects. After struggling to breathe during a swim, Bates discussed options with her husband.

“We made the decision to do it for my health,” Bates said.

“Before the pandemic, I thought I would work at least until the age of 65 to qualify for health insurance,” she told AFP. “I love my job, so I expected to stay as long as I really wanted.”

Bates is far from the only one leaving sooner than she expected.

Whether due to fear of a dangerous workplace or job loss amid economic upheaval, “millions of older workers are simply retiring and often sooner than they are ready”, said Ghilarducci.

“It’s scary,” said Bates, who now works as an independent contractor for a company that does job placements for seniors.

“You give up a very good salary and all your benefits. One day you have nothing left.”

While most departures are among workers aged 65 and over, more workers over 55 without a university degree are also leaving their jobs, Ghilarducci said.

The retirements of black workers without a college degree rose 9.2 percent, while white workers with the same education profile saw an increase of 7.5 percent, she said.

One of the risks associated with early retirement is an increase in poverty among the elderly population.

At the same time, some older workers are in fact in a relatively good position to retire, at least compared to previous crises.

“During the global financial crisis, there were obviously a huge number of people who had lost all of their retirement savings, and 10 years later they couldn’t retire,” said Jacob Kirkegaard, researcher at Peterson Institute for International Economics.

“At the moment, the situation is exactly the opposite,” Kirkegaard said, noting that the stock market rose during the pandemic, as did house prices, which fell after the 2008 stock market crash.

But the exodus of workers exacerbates bottlenecks in some cases, as some of those who have left are “very experienced and highly skilled people,” Kirkegaard said. “They are no longer available.”

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