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Pandemic led to early retirement for many Americans — some voluntary, some not

·4-min read

It took a global health crisis to convince one of Gretchen Behnke’s clients that she could retire early at 51, a move the woman finally made in February, convinced her finances were in good enough shape to allow her golden years to start.

“She had been contemplating early retirement for about three years,” Behnke, a certified financial planner in Plano, Texas, told Yahoo Money, “ I believe it was the pandemic that made her feel the uncertainty of life and that she didn't want to spend any more time in a job that was very stressful, took a toll on her health, and drained her energy.”

Read more: Expert: Retirement investors should embrace uncertainty as their new normal

She’s not the only one. The unusual circumstances of the pandemic — the unexpected boom in the stock market, unprecedented job losses, the unique health threat to older people, and the loss of time with loved ones — all created an environment that helped lead to an early retirement for many, according to a pair of studies.

Boyertown, PA - February 4: Patsy Hahn, owner of Patsy's Potpourri of Gifts in her shop. At Patsy's Potpourri of Gifts in Boyertown Thursday afternoon February 4, 2021. Patsy Hahn, the owner, is retiring and the shop will be closing. (Photo by Ben Hasty/MediaNews Group/Reading Eagle via Getty Images)
Patsy Hahn, owner of Patsy's Potpourri of Gifts in her shop. At Patsy's Potpourri of Gifts in Boyertown Thursday afternoon February 4, 2021. Patsy Hahn, the owner, is retiring and the shop will be closing. (Photo by Ben Hasty/MediaNews Group/Reading Eagle via Getty Images)

More than 1 in 10 baby boomers said the pandemic caused them to retire sooner than expected, according to a recent survey from MetLife, with nearly a third adopting a “life is too short” mentality, while a quarter wanted to spend more time with loved ones or have more free time.

“Older people have really faced new challenges when it comes to retirement and their retirement savings and how they perceive their financial future,” Roberta Rafaloff, vice president of institutional income annuities at MetLife, told Yahoo Money. “You have these people who are saying, ‘I've watched loved ones get sick, perhaps I've watched loved ones pass away. Life is too short. I'm going to take advantage of what I have today and retire.’”

Read more: Here's how to get your retirement savings back on track

On the flip side in a Federal Reserve study, the 29% of adults who retired early due to COVID-19 were more likely to say they were forced to retire or that work was not available, they did not like their work, or they had to care for family members, compared with other retirees.

“For people who are in industries that were negatively affected — hospitality, etc. — their stories are very different if they weren’t financially or psychologically prepared,” said Patricia Hausknost, a certified financial planner in Long Beach, California.

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For instance, One FedEx delivery worker in his early 60s whose pre-pandemic goal was to retire at 65, bowed out last November, right before the holiday rush when the pressure and the workload ramped up.

“The work tempo he was under was increasing more and more,” the man’s financial planner, Christopher Owens, a senior advisor associate at Wealthspire Advisors, told Yahoo Money. "[He] physically couldn't take it anymore and couldn't keep up.”

For others, it was a combination of job loss and existential reflection that convinced them to retire early.

Another client of Owens who was “always kind of apprehensive to retire” was laid off from her job in a doctor’s office last year and the “situation was pretty much decided for her,” he said. Between the unemployment and lockdown measures, the downtime allowed her to gradually transition into retirement and spend time with her family instead.

(Credit: Federal Reserve)
(Credit: Federal Reserve)

While she was buoyed by unemployment insurance benefits, she also kept her expenses low, and Owens explained that she “thought about going back to work” but as time wore on she became “more and more comfortable with the idea of retirement,” he said.

So did Larry Harris, a certified financial planner in Asheville, North Carolina, who credits the pandemic for allowing him to open his imagination to retirement.

“I am 67 and planning to retire,” he told Yahoo Money. “The pandemic did create a unique opportunity to examine work from home and how that might enable me to enjoy working longer at a different pace. [It] also gave me some insight into what retirement might look like not going into the office everyday.”

Yahoo Money sister site Cashay has a weekly newsletter.
Yahoo Money sister site Cashay has a weekly newsletter.

Stephanie is a reporter for Yahoo Money and Cashay, a new personal finance website. Follow her on Twitter @SJAsymkos.

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