In discussing the surge of workers quitting or retiring during the coronavirus pandemic, one question that I keep hearing, and that I asked last week, is this: How are people who abruptly quit or retired from their jobs getting by financially?
Most of the departing workers I heard from had also asked themselves that question, but they had decided that they could more easily give up their paychecks than their well-being.
Some retirees said that although the pandemic nudged them into retirement faster than they expected, it also brought relief from the expenses incurred in pursuing their careers.
“I [no longer] need to buy clothes or shoes for work, fill the gas tank three times a week, pay for parking, etc.,” wrote Sandy Marasco in an email. After her layoff from a pharmaceutical industry job in Cambridge, Massachusetts, early in the pandemic, Marasco used her severance package to pay off her mortgage.
She then lived off her savings and state unemployment benefits through 18 months of unsuccessful job-searching before realizing that her earlier goal of working full-time until age 70 no longer appealed to her. Marasco now gets by on Social Security and a 401(k) retirement plan.
Kathleen Corcoran had concerns about giving up the “golden handcuffs” of a full-time job in the high-cost D.C. metro area when she retired from her communications career. But no full-time salary could allow her to buy what she really wanted: time.
Giving up income is stressful, but “then you realize some of that money is going for things to de-stress you” from work, Corcoran told me in a phone interview. “Once I sat down and looked at the numbers, I realized [retiring] was doable — and what I was getting in return was time to pursue things I really wanted to pursue,” such as seeing friends, writing, reading and volunteering. She now teaches part-time, a job she finds “rewarding in a way that goes beyond a paycheck.”
A former office manager in Laurel, Maryland, who withheld her name because of tension with her former boss, has no regrets about retiring early, even though it meant receiving a smaller Social Security payment: “If I had waited until 70, I would have received $300 more per month.” But, she said, she weighed her sanity against that financial loss and “decided to take the leap. I’m so happy that I did.”
Of course, retirement is still a long way off for many people. Some have been reassessing what they want from their jobs versus what they need.
Jason S. of New York, who asked for partial anonymity out of respect for relatives in government who share his surname, was laid off from one contract position and terminated from the next after he protested going into the office for a job that he’d been told would be fully remote.
Although his wife works and they have six months of savings, Jason’s unemployment is taking a big bite out of their finances, “so this is not sustainable even in the medium term,” he told me in an email. His job-search priorities are shifting: “Taking a lesser-paying job with health insurance over a no-benefits [contract job] would be a no-brainer for me now.”
And some people have been able to weather income loss thanks to careers that conditioned them to prepare for the worst. Marlen Garcia, of Chicago, told me via email how at age 26 she was denied a $5,000 raise with her promotion at a newspaper because of company pay policy, and how she saw other journalists lose jobs and opportunities “on the whims of bosses.”
Garcia told her husband, “We have to be in a position where I can leave my job one day if that happens to me.” They bought a small house and “ate a lot of bologna” so they could pay extra toward the principal each month. When the mortgage was paid off 16 years later, it allowed Garcia the flexibility to take freelance and part-time work when full-time jobs were unavailable.
One common theme among the people who shared their stories with me: They don’t take their relative fortune for granted.
“I have been very lucky and am thankful for that,” Marasco wrote. “I also do what I can for those less fortunate.” Marasco opted not to collect the federal government’s expanded pandemic unemployment benefits.
Garcia recognizes that luck and the economy were important in shoring up her finances. “I had less than $5,000 in loans when I finished college in 1993. [Graduates today] have tens of thousands of dollars in debt. Rents are crazy. Too many homes are unaffordable. I don’t see how they can do it.”
Even before the pandemic, rising costs of living — rather, costs of surviving — have left most low- and middle-income workers unable to build a sizable savings cushion or anchor themselves with real estate and other investments. For those with student loans, medical debt and dependents, the footing was already treacherous. Enter the pandemic, and the ground is crumbling.
I know for every success story I hear, there are many more invisible struggles — people with no pensions, partners or pandemic relief to help them get by. I can only assume they’re consumed with making ends meet.