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Last spring, a Texas A&M business school psychology professor by the name of Anthony Klotz predicted that there would soon be a major surge in Americans quitting their jobs.
“The Great Resignation is coming,” he said.
According to Professor Klotz, this tidal wave of resignations would be fueled by people who’d put off changing jobs during the first year of the coronavirus pandemic and by people reassessing their life priorities after an extraordinarily unsettling year.
“From organizational research, we know that when human beings come into contact with death and illness in their lives, it causes them to take a step back and ask existentialism questions,” Klotz said. “Like what gives me purpose and happiness in life, and does that match up with how I’m spending my life now? So, in many cases, those reflections will lead to life pivots.”
Klotz’s prediction turned out to be astonishingly accurate (or an astonishing coincidence). In June, 3.8 million Americans voluntarily left their jobs. In July, it was 4 million. In August, 4.2 million, and September, just under 4.4 million, a record. The numbers have declined slightly since.
Among those so-called “quitters” (remember when that expression was a put-down?) are an estimated 1.5 million to 3 million* workers who retired early. Some number of them were older workers who lost jobs and retired because they couldn’t get another. But many are those who, as Klotz put it, reflected on their lives and had a Covid-inspired epiphany: I’m done. I want to enjoy life while I still can.
“We’ve really had a once-in-a-generation ‘take this job and shove it’ moment,” said Harvard economist Lawrence Katz.
In late 2018, I retired from ABC News. I had been a journalist for more than 40 years. Retirement has been an unexpected delight, but there was a transition that had to be navigated without a road map. For many of the millions of newly retired, they are likely adjusting to their new lives, an adjustment considerably gentler for those who are financially secure, but an adjustment just the same even for those who are initially giddy with the first flush of freedom from the tyranny of labor.
Earlier this year, I spoke with Dr. Louise Aronson, geriatrician at the University of California at San Francisco Medical Center and author of a terrific book, Elderhood, about the challenges and opportunities of retirement. Even if you are not at all close to retirement, she offers some helpful insights into a stage of life that will come sooner or later.
Here’s an excerpt:
RC: What's the range of retirement experiences that you have seen?
LA: It's a major life transition for which there isn't preparation. I think in this historic moment it's kind of changed. People used to retire not long before they died. Now we live decades longer. You may live 20, 30, 40 more years and for many, many people those years can be quite productive, so I think it depends. The people who do best, and this is true for most things aging and most things in life, are the people who plan and the people who look forward to it. It's also being a curious, engaged person. It's all that thing of jumping into a life. It depends a little bit on who they are too. So, for some people, their work is their identity. One key thing to do ideally before you transition and retire is get a more solid sense of yourself as someone other than your job or your job description.
RC: That sounds ideal, but that has got to be hard for a lot of people.
LA: Oh, it's really hard and -- this is so unscientific and it may just be the people who come to see me -- but I feel like -- it's a lot harder for men, particularly men as they enter their 80s, and that may also be a social potency thing where for some men, especially white, heterosexual, Christian men. For some of them, it's the first time they've ever not been at the top of the heap and they don't know what to make of it. For others, it's just about "this is my worth" and worth is defined -- and this is an American problem that really started with the Industrial Revolution -- worth defined by what you do, what you do defined as who you are.
It also depends: were you a powerful person? Or not a powerful person? Did you enjoy your job? Or did you hate your job? With all things old age, there's a lot of variety. I have some people who are really looking forward to it. They'll think about all the things they do when they have time off and how they're going to have more time for that. Other people are just exhausted and there's often a transitional phase. Do you need a break? Do you want more recreation or more meaning? It comes with different expectations and different priorities and sometimes different values. And one of the things we know makes people happiest is to know what their priorities are and live by them. So life might get a little smaller in some ways, but if that small space is filled with what matters most, it actually feels much better to you than a great, big space of things you don't like or you haven't chosen or you have to deal with or sort through.
RC: In your (May 2020) TED Talk*, there's a quote that I wrote down: The fact that we're living longer into elderhood "gives us more years to enjoy life and contribute to the world if the world lets us." What is that caveat at the end referring to?
LA: I mean age discrimination in employment seems to start at age 40 or 50.That's a huge problem. But society wants its cake and to eat it too, so, on the one hand, it's like you're too old to work and people want to work and they're not allowed to work or they're made to retire, and then society says "you old people are of no use." Well, you can't have it both ways. Old people have tons of use. You do get more tired and you have maybe some different priorities (e.g.) What's going to make me feel good everyday? Who's going to make me feel good everyday? It's that shift really of prioritizing what matters. I've seen it over decades of people on their deathbed. (They) rarely say "I wish I'd taken that promotion I turned down." It's more, "I wish I’d spent more time with this person" or "I wish I'd learned to play the sax." (laughter) That's the sort of stuff people actually say: "Hey, this is my one and only life as far as I know" -- I suppose there are religions where that isn't the case -- "and my clock is ticking and what do I want to do with this time?" To some degree, that's a luxury. Increasingly, poorer people have to keep working. I think it's important to acknowledge that that's a middle- to upper-class situation. And for most of history, people haven't been able to retire except for the richest people.
RC: Generally, who does well in retirement later in life? And who does less well, or poorly?
LA: Generally, with aging, people who do well are the people, I always talk about the three A's. So, they accept that it's different. They adjust or adapt, and then they act. It's like creating a new self, but really you've been doing that all along. So really it's people who accept and adapt who do best and people who have interests. There are all these studies with centenarians, and now they're looking at super-centenarians, and it has to do with not getting too stressed out by changes, with having a sense of humor, with prioritizing relationships. People who can do that do adapt and then thrive. It's giving yourself the license to some creativity, like "what can i do?" People who have a tendency to get bored are in trouble. So I think it's about having confidence in yourself and the ability to figure out what matters to you and know that that matters and it doesn't need to be reflected.
RC: Do you think the third age (a reference to early elderhood, roughly post 60) is the apogee of life?
LA: I think probably people have different apogees. I think those of us who are more fortunate have the opportunity to really enjoy all these things we haven't been doing. Do we need to have just one? Can we just have different phases of life where different things feel really important?"
RC: The pandemic obviously has constrained everybody's life, almost everybody. I guess for retirees, it's been a particular kind of confinement.
LA: A lot of people quit jobs if they weren't allowed to be safe on the job or work from home. They thought "I don't want to die over this."
I do think Boomers, unlike the preceding generations who were silent and great and (said), "We're just going to put up with this and march forward to our graves," they're nothing like the Boomers (who say), "We're going to make this better." I think that's good for everyone."
cover photo credit: Getty Images, Dean Mitchell