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The ‘Great Retirement’ trend

The surge in U.S. retirements during the COVID-19 pandemic has been led by older white women without a college education, according to research by the St. Louis Federal Reserve.

The so-called “Great Retirement” trend that has seen workers leave the labor market — whether forced or by choice — was driven by baby boomers ages 65 and older, the regional Fed bank wrote in a recent blog post.

By contrast, retirements among those ages 54 to 65 has been little changed.

Overall, there were 3.3 million, or 7%, more retirees as of October 2021 than in January 2020, a number that exceeds the expected demographic shift of the large baby-boomer cohort out of the labor force.

Here are some of the other findings.

Pathway to retirement

Americans have retired early for many reasons during the COVID-19 crisis, including because they lost their jobs, feared for their health or had to care for family members.

Another factor has been the boom in the value of assets such as investments and real estate, which has given some an opportunity to stop working earlier than they anticipated.

Average net worth jumped 12% and 14.8% among families with a head of household ages 55 to 69, and 70 and older, respectively, Fed researchers found.

Unlike in other developed countries, retirement isn’t necessarily a permanent shift in the U.S. It’s not uncommon for Americans to “un-retire” and return to the job market, out of financial hardship or personal choice.

The COVID-19 retirement boom has changed that dynamic. Many retirees haven’t been swayed to return due to pandemic-related health risks, according to research by the Kansas City Fed.

“We find that the current increase has mainly been driven by a decline in the number of retirees rejoining the labor force,” wrote Jun Nie and Shu-Kuei X Yang, economists at the regional Fed bank, in a report last year.

“Even if monthly transitions from retirement to employment return to their average pace in 2018-19, it will take more than two years to fully unwind the recent increase in the retirement share,” they wrote last August.

Their analysis was conducted before the arrival of the omicron variant, which has proved more contagious than previous waves and could further dissuade retirees to return to the workforce.

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