Some older workers are retiring earlier than they had planned, a trend that could accelerate if the city provides incentives to encourage them to leave their jobs. While some people leaving the workforce look forward to a life of leisure, others will be forced to scramble for health insurance, dip into savings and receive lower Social Security benefits than they otherwise would have.

Adi Talwar

Companies like Bloomingdales have agreed to provide transition packages to make it easier for employees to retire early.

Last July, Susan Ruel was working from her Manhattan apartment as a digital manager for a small health-care organization. ”I had been very busy,” Ruel recalls.

Then she and her colleagues were summoned to a Zoom meeting. “They told us that now that they had more information about the state budget, they needed to do payroll cuts and some layoffs,” she remembers. Ruel, 66, a communications professional and journalist, was among them. 

Although the organization had had its ups and downs, Ruel says the loss of her job felt abrupt. In the time since, Ruel has done a lot of political volunteer work, tended to personal business and considered her future. She says she would like to return to paid work but knows that—despite her extensive resume—the economy, her age and changes in her field could make that difficult. “I want to be very selective,” Ruel says.

Nine months into a recession that has cost New York City more than half a million private-sector jobs, many older workers, like Ruel, find themselves out of work and wondering about their futures. Some are retiring earlier than they had planned, a trend that could accelerate if the city provides incentives to encourage older workers to leave their jobs. While some people leaving the workforce look forward to a life of leisure, others will be forced to scramble for health insurance, dip into savings and receive lower Social Security benefits than they otherwise would have.

“We’re going to see more people struggling in retirement in the future,” says Richard W. Johnson, a senior fellow at the Urban Institute. “We’re going to see more inequality in retirement as a result of this.”

The full impact of the COVID-induced recession of 2020 will not be known for years, but, while young people starting their work lives have been hard hit, the economic crisis is also having a disproportionate effect on workers aged 55 or over, particularly Black, Asian and Latino workers and those with less education.

“A lot of people expected job losses this time around would mirror the Great Recession, [when] old people were less likely to lose their jobs,” says Christian González-Rivera, director of strategic policy initiatives at the Brookdale Center for Healthy Aging. But in the pandemic, older workers have been more likely to lose or leave their jobs—losses that can be hard to regain. “Evidence is pretty clear that when an older worker loses their job they are unlikely to get a job at a similar pay rate for a very long time,” he says.