On a certain level, I completely understand the massive exodus of workers from the American workforce that has become known as the Great Resignation. The dystopian effects of the pandemic, whether in the form of furloughs and layoffs or the crushing workloads laid on the backs of those picking up the slack, have convinced millions of people to step away from their jobs and see where this all may be headed. What they’re observing — rising wages, more flexible workplaces, and employers struggling to fill positions — makes a pretty good argument for exploring every option and holding out for a better deal. If I were still young and ambitious, I might even be updating my résumé.
But I’m 70 years old and feel exceedingly fortunate to be gainfully employed, which is why it’s easier for me to digest the youthful influence on the Great Resignation than the boomer version — what Helaine Olen calls the “Great Retirement.” Writing in the Washington Post, Olen cites a Goldman Sachs survey estimating that more than half of those who have fled the labor force during the past two years are 55 or older.
“It’s not just 22-year-old baristas who have had it with working conditions,” she notes. “Those understaffed stores? Retailers became increasingly reliant on older workers in the wake of the Great Recession. Many are now making an exit.”
For years, these older workers propped up the workforce in myriad employer-friendly ways. Their presence tended to depress wages and compensate for labor shortages caused by a falling birthrate and rising obstacles to immigration. And their work ethic — as well as a lack of retirement savings — kept them reliably on the job. A 2013 Gallup poll found that one out of 10 boomers surveyed intended to avoid retirement altogether.
That’s all changed suddenly, Olen argues, and it raises a host of economic issues policymakers haven’t had to address since the stagflation days of the Carter Administration. “It’s potentially inflationary because employers competing for scarcer labor will have to pay higher wages, so they will raise the prices of their products,” she explains. “This could contribute to a wage-price spiral, where rising prices lead empowered workers to demand raises to keep up, fueling even more inflation.”
All this may not make for a fruitful economy, but it’s likely to result in better working conditions as employers tinker with the policies, wages, and cultural upgrades necessary to lure employees back into the fold. For older workers trying to choose between work and retirement, Olen notes, companies offering flexible schedules, reduced hours, consulting opportunities, and other incentives might prove particularly appealing.
That sort of semiretirement scenario may be my only plausible exit strategy, but it seems such a long way off that I didn’t raise that possibility last week when I sat down with my boss for our quarterly check-in. She’s not yet 40 but may have aged a bit last fall during the upheaval that followed the sudden retirement of our longtime copy chief, so after exchanging a few pleasantries, she was anxious to learn whether I was contemplating a similar exit anytime soon.
“You’re stuck with me for the foreseeable future,” I said. “I’m still learning stuff, the job’s still challenging, and I feel like I’m still contributing in a meaningful way.”
She seemed relieved.
Intentions, however, are one thing and reality often is quite another. “Who knows what might happen tomorrow or the next day or the next year?” I added after a moment. “Still, the way I’m feeling right now, there’s a half-decent chance we could be sitting in this office discussing my career plans when I’m 85 — if you haven’t already retired.”
She leaned back and laughed. “Knock on wood,” she said, tapping the tabletop.
“Yeah,” I smiled. “Knock on wood.”