The ‘Great Resignation’ isn’t going anywhere—at least among baby boomers

older woman at computer
Over 3.5 million workers are missing from the labor force. Many of those are early retirees.
10'000 Hours - Getty Images

The much-maligned Great Resignation has been the subject of many headlines since last year, as underpaid and under-appreciated workers decided to leave for greener pastures. In 2021, over 47 million Americans voluntarily quit their jobs—which the Harvard Business Review called “an unprecedented mass exit.”

As with most workplace trends, millennials and Gen Z bore the brunt of the blame for fueling the quits, said to be seeking higher pay and greater flexibility. But we might want to shift some of that attention to baby boomers, who also left the workforce in droves during the pandemic. Many of them don’t plan on coming back.

“My optimism has waned,” Wendy Edelberg, director of economic policy initiative the Hamilton Project at the Brookings Institution, told The New York Times. “We’re now talking about people who have reorganized their lives around not working.”

Older workers don’t always quit during challenging economic times. During the Great Recession, HBR pointed out, workforce participation among the 55-and-older cohort grew by 1%. The Great Resignation, on the other hand, saw a 1.9% decline. 

It’s a sharp turn: From 1995 to February 2020, boomers’ labor force participation was growing, Diane Swonk, KPMG chief economist, told Fortune

Their exit is causing a ripple effect. Between early retirees, “a surge in deaths,” and a decline in immigration, the American labor force is missing about 3.5 million people, Fed chair Jerome Powell said in late November. The excess retirements in particular “might now account for more than 2 million of the 3 ½ million shortfall in the labor force,” he said. Experts worry the shortfall could make it harder to tame inflation. 

“An aging population will hurt the U.S. economy’s ability to grow without creating inflation longer term,” Blackrock analysts wrote last month. “Economic activity will need to run at a lower level to avoid persistent wage and price inflation, especially in the labor-heavy services sector.”

To be sure, skyrocketing prices of everything from gas to poultry, alongside a volatile market that’s obliterated retirement savings, have left some retirees struggling to afford their lifestyles. That, and boredom, has some considering returning to work.

Anita and Russell Cowles, a newly retired couple in their mid-60s, told Fortune their investments have lost about $500,000 in value since February—“a big chunk of our retirement.”

To stretch their savings, Russell, a former pilot, is considering un-retiring to work for a smaller airline. But many boomers are done for good, even if it means living less extravagantly than they’d hoped. 

Putting aside the financial decision to work or stay home, many boomers may still be concerned about catching COVID on the job, which makes sense as older people are at elevated risk

Nevertheless, boomers hardly have the market cornered when it comes to quitting their jobs. A 2021 HBR study revealed that resignation rates have been highest among 30- to 45-year-old employees (mostly millennials), growing on average by over 20% since 2020. 

Last year, LinkedIn CEO Ryan Roslansky said job transitions among Gen Z workers since the beginning of the pandemic had increased by 80%. He and other job experts have dubbed the phenomenon “The Great Reshuffle” rather than the Great Resignation. Millennial job switching grew 50%, Gen X by 31%, and in last place, boomers’ job switching grew by just 5%.

So younger workers might be leading the way when it comes to taking a new role, but boomers seem to be the ones driving permanent quits.

Our new weekly Impact Report newsletter examines how ESG news and trends are shaping the roles and responsibilities of today’s executives. Subscribe here.

Read More

Great ResignationCompensationReturn to WorkCareersLaborSuccess Stories