May 13, 2024 - Business

You only live once: How the pandemic helped fuel early retirements

A line chart that shows the percentage of Americans who believe they'll work past 62 from November 2015 to March 2024. The percentage fluctuates between 46% and 58% over the period. A general downward trend is observed, with the highest point at 58% in November 2015 and 2016, and the lowest at 46% in March 2024.
Data: NY Fed; Chart: Axios Visuals

Americans don't want to work past the traditional retirement age of 65. In fact, increasingly we don't even intend to work past 62.

Why it matters: The COVID-19 pandemic was a pointed reminder that we only live once. Millions of workers seem to have taken that lesson to heart.

The big picture: The U.S. population is getting older, the Social Security trust fund is running out of money, and technological improvements mean that many jobs are much less physically taxing than they used to be.

  • All of those developments favor working longer — and yet when we're asked, only 46% of workers under 62 now expect to continue working past that age.

State of play: That percentage has been declining for a decade, but especially since the pandemic.

  • New York Fed researchers found that since March 2020, the number of years Americans expect to continue working has plunged by 9.5%.
  • "The decline is broad-based across age, education, and income groups," they write.

Where it stands: The data on when we have actually been retiring is less easy to find than the data on when we intend to retire, but broadly we do seem to be following through on our intentions.

  • The Employee Benefit Research Institute's latest retirement confidence survey, for instance, finds the median age at which retirees retired is 62, and that less than a third of today's retirees worked until 65 or later.

Follow the money: Thank, in part, the long bull market in stocks and in housing, which has made sexagenarians richer than ever — and able to afford to retire.

The other side: Less happily, millions of Americans found themselves forced into retirement after 2020 by ill health — a phenomenon that contributed to the subsequent labor shortage.

Between the lines: The New York Fed researchers hypothesize that "a cultural shift characterized by a rethinking of the value of work" might be part of the reason for the decline in the age at which Americans intend to retire.

The bottom line: Working longer simply isn't practical for many Americans. Early retirement, on the other hand, is something that can happen to anyone, out of choice or necessity.

  • Increasingly, we're choosing it rather than having it forced upon us.
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