Covid retirement boom image

November 5, 2021

The Pandemic's Retirement Boom

Millions more older workers retired in 2020 than the previous year. Is the pandemic to blame?

When Kathleen Ryan realized that she was struggling to spell simple words and that she couldn’t get more than a few sentences out without a coughing fit, she knew her teaching career was over. It was devastating — the 62-year-old had taught her entire life — but after surviving such a severe case of COVID-19 that she had to relearn how to walk, Ryan felt lucky to be alive at all.

In the pandemic’s early days, Ryan spent 48 days in a Virginia hospital with a case of COVID-19 so severe that she was almost taken off life support. Miraculously, she survived, but it took her four months to walk on her own again, and the lasting effects meant an end to her teaching career.

“It’s very sad because I was a really good teacher and I miss that. Feeling useless is probably the biggest consequence of this,” Ryan said of her forced early retirement. “No amount of money can give you the kind of satisfaction teaching gives. It’s an extraordinary thing to be a part of.”

The pace of retirements among Americans born between 1946 and 1964 accelerated in 2020. About 3.2 million people in this group retired between 2019 and 2020. That’s more than double the number (1.5 million) who retired between the same period in 2018 and 2019. Pandemic-related job losses might be part of the reason.

Americans ages 55 to 74 retired between 2019 and 2020

In May of last year, Luceanne Taufa, 62, got a letter from the Las Vegas casino where she had worked for 18 years. Given pandemic closures, she had lost her job.

“I felt sick: mentally sick, physically sick. I couldn’t sleep. I didn’t know what to do,” Taufa said.

Taufa, her husband, and their five children relied on the job not only for basic life expenses but also for health insurance — and, most urgently, her husband’s heart medication.

It took two months for unemployment to kick in, which meant Taufa burned through a lot of her savings. She got food from her union’s food bank, and her kids chipped in to help with electric and water bills. Still, sometimes her utilities were cut off.

The long-term financial effects of the pandemic have hit many Americans hard. About 3 in 10 adults said in a January survey that they worry every day or almost every day about their ability to save for retirement.

For some Americans, an early pandemic retirement was a choice — albeit a difficult one.

I am still searching for employment while tightening the purse strings. This is not exactly what I expected after retirement.

Debbie Morgan

Debbie Morgan was 67 years old with 36 years as a flight attendant under her belt when the pandemic hit. In February 2020, she staffed a flight from London to the East Coast, with many passengers returning from Italy and other hot spots.

When one passenger coughed directly in her face, she panicked. If infected, her age and autoimmune disease put her at risk of serious illness. Luckily, she tested negative for COVID. But when most international flights ground to a halt, her company offered her the chance to take an early retirement.

“The decision to leave a job I loved was difficult in many, many ways. I was terrified that I’d end up on the street if my pension and Social Security didn’t meet my financial requirements,” Morgan said. “Yet, at the same time, I was terrified that this deadly virus would kill me.”

Morgan said she’s had to take money out of retirement savings to make ends meet. She has also looked into pursuing a second career.

“I am still searching for employment while tightening the purse strings,” she said. “This is not exactly what I expected after retirement.”

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