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COMMENTARY | For years, human resources officials worried about an alarming exodus of government retirees. Now it’s here—and it's because of Covid-19.
In 2005, we wrote that “there is a personnel tornado on the horizon: In more than half the states, one in five (state) employees will be retiring over the next five years.”
Boy, were we wrong. As it turned out the tornado was a lot more like a mild breeze. The predicted wave of retirements hasn’t come to pass for a variety of reasons, not least of which was the Great Recession, which cut deeply into the savings many public sector employees were counting on to comfortably leave the workplace.
Well, we’re back in the tornado game again.
According to a new report from the MissionSquare Research Institute, a non-partisan organization that explores workforce issues, “When this survey was first fielded in 2009, 44% of governments indicated that their retirement-eligible employees were postponing retirement—a recession-influenced peak. Now, influenced by the events of the past year, 38% indicated that employees are accelerating their plans—the highest percentage to report that since the survey began.”
Clearly, the exuberant stock market has made it increasingly possible for people to consider retiring now. But that’s only a small part of the story. Experts agree that the pandemic has encouraged people to rethink their futures; and in many instances that kind of thinking has led them on the path to retirement.
As Carmen Douglas, director of the city-county personnel board of Montgomery, Alabama, says, “Covid has caused employees who had been with the city for a prolonged period to re-evaluate their future. One person I was talking to recently told me he was concerned about the uncertainty of everything going on with Covid. He hadn’t planned on retiring, but now he realized that he wanted to spend more time with family, with his grandchildren.”
For men and women who have been working remotely, the prospect of returning to the office can provoke a bundle of questions. “People are thinking do I really want to go back to the office?” says Bob Lavigna, director of the CPS HR Institute for Public Sector Employee Engagement. “They may have liked working at home. They might have moved away from the city, while working remotely. They don’t want to commute, to spend the money to park. They don’t want to update their wardrobe.”
In some instances, the long stretch of Covid–exacerbated by the uncertainties they’re facing with the onslaught of the delta variant–has left people weary of a work life that has been draining and difficult. Of course, burnout has been an issue since before the pandemic, but it has been amplified.
Elizabeth Linos, assistant professor at the Goldman School of Public Policy at the University of California, Berkeley and co-director of the People Lab, says data shows high rates of burnout, anxiety and compassion fatigue across a wide range of public sector employees. “We know from previous literature that this is highly predictive of who is going to leave,” she says.
Karen Niparko, chief HR officer and executive director of the office of human resources for the city and county of Denver, stresses the idea that this is a time when many people are re-evaluating their future. “We are seeing increased numbers of requests for retirement estimates and individuals retiring. I believe it partially has to do with the general stress and anxiousness that people have experienced in this long pandemic and being in some form of lockdown.”
Police Officers Rushing Towards Retirement
The segment of public sector employees who seem to be leading the pack toward retirement are police officers.
According to a June special report from the from the Police Executive Research Forum, “Among all responding police departments, there was a 45% increase in the retirement rate. Of course, in small departments a small number of retirements may result in a high percentage increase in the retirement rate. But even in the largest agencies, with 500 or more officers, the retirement rate increased by 27%.”
Of course, police officers have been facing a particularly tough time as a result of the killing of George Floyd, the demonstrations that followed, and the “defund the police” movement that left many feeling unappreciated, disrespected and even disliked. In Portland, for example, “people were demonstrating against the police for something like 140 straight nights,” says Chuck Wexler, PERF’s executive director.
That might have been enough to drive police officers away from their jobs, and into retirement, but the pandemic has played an important role as well. Police officers can’t deal with crimes or even traffic accidents from home offices, and so they have been necessarily exposed to the virus. “When you’re trying to solve a homicide,” says Wexler, “you need to talk to people.”
Public Health to Have ‘Significant Departures’
Another area that seems to be heading toward a deluge of retirements is public health, according to Brian Castrucci, president and CEO of the de Beaumont Foundation, a philanthropy fighting for public health practice.
“My concern is that a workforce that has been underappreciated, underfunded and now assaulted is going to have significant departures,” he says. “There’s been a false dichotomy in the pandemic between lives versus livelihoods, and the public health people are always going to be perceived as being exclusively on the side of lives. That’s put them in the social media crosshairs for many.”
Of course, some of the people who are making retirement plans are those in their sixties who, in the past, might have hung around for a few more years. Nevertheless, they have been pushed out of their jobs more quickly because of the pressures of the last couple of years.
But the retirement surge is not entirely the province of baby boomers. Some Gen Xers, the group that follows the baby boomers, have been in government for enough time to qualify for retirement benefits and are also part of the phenomenon.
Naturally, many of these younger retirees aren’t planning on a life of trips and Netflix movies. Rather, they have the opportunity to start another career, presumably one that isn’t quite as pressured or frustrating as the one they had. For these potential retirees, the pandemic may well have been the “tipping point” that has led them to change careers, according to Gerald Young, senior research analyst with MissionSquare Research Institute.
Fagan Stackhouse, human resources director of Raleigh, North Carolina, said the city has had a 25% increase in retirements over the last year, “which is pretty significant.”
“I was surprised when I ran the numbers. We’re seeing Gen Xers leaving the organization,” Stackhouse said. “If they put their 30 years in and start early enough then they can leave in their early fifties. So, we’re losing a number of people who are 52 or 53 and some who are in their late forties.”
One particularly alarming prospect: If people who retire aren’t replaced, then the workload for those remaining will grow larger. “We could have a vicious cycle,” says Linos, “in which a lot of people who are eligible to retire will retire. That will lead to staffing shortages, and then the remaining people will feel the need to leave as they become burned out too.”
Katherine Barrett and Richard Greene of Barrett and Greene, Inc. are columnists and senior advisers to Route Fifty.