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Dec. 7, 2022

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Did the Great Resignation hide a Great Retirement in Clark County?

Older Americans leaving workforce may be factor in staffing shortages exacerbated by pandemic

By , Columbian staff writer
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5 Photos
Schuyler Hoss, who retired recently after working in state government, helped with the development of The Waterfront Vancouver.
Schuyler Hoss, who retired recently after working in state government, helped with the development of The Waterfront Vancouver. (Amanda Cowan/The Columbian) Photo Gallery

Every week, Schuyler Hoss takes a walk around Vancouver, gazing upon the projects he helped bring to fruition during his 14 years working for the governor’s office. It’s one of his favorite retirement pastimes. The walk reveals memories of his work, as those days are now behind him.

“That’s the greatest satisfaction I’ve had in retirement, looking back at some of these things,” Hoss said.

There’s been a lot of talk about the so-called Great Resignation, causing crippling staff shortages across companies and industries. And there’s been speculation that hiding within the Great Resignation is another phenomenon — the Great Retirement.

Signs of the Great Resignation and staffing shortages can be seen throughout the community. “We’re hiring” signs are still found in restaurant windows. Business recruiters and human resources departments have struggled to find qualified job candidates. But the question remains: How many of these staff shortages are actually due to an abnormal rise in retirements? More people are reaching retirement age and slightly more folks over 55 polled say they’re retired, though the number of people collecting Social Security has not increased more than it has in the past.

Hoss, for instance, did not rush out of the workforce due to the pandemic. Before the pandemic began, he’d planned to retire in January 2021. Hoss is 67 now. He was eligible to retire when he was 65. And his job was a demanding one. But when February 2020 came, he was briefed about COVID-19.

“All our lives were very different after that,” Hoss said. “I delayed my retirement almost a year and a half.

“It was just not a good time to leave the office,” he said, pointing out that it was an especially bad time to leave for someone who’d been in the governor’s office for so long and had so much diverse experience.

The local story

During a December C-Tran Board of Directors meeting, the agency’s chief executive officer, Shawn Donaghy, brought up recruitment and retention compensation.

The agency, he said, was faring well compared with other transit agencies around the country. But applications for employment had slowed down. And as many employees neared retirement age, they stuck around in 2020 but decided to leave in 2021. The loss of staff was noticeable.

Donaghy said he understood the desire to move on but added that the agency would need to work harder to overcome the losses. He asked the board to approve a reallocation of funds from C-Tran’s budget to offer retention pay to recognize years of service and the work C-Tran employees had to do during the pandemic.

Some large local employers, including Vancouver Public Schools, Evergreen Public Schools and Georgia-Pacific’s Camas mill, have said they have not seen a rise in unexpected retirements.

Evergreen Public Schools has, however, offered an incentive for certified staff this school year if the human resources department is notified of their planned retirement before Feb. 1.

“So we have learned of retirements earlier than a typical year,” said Craig Birnbach, communications manager at the school district.

Still, not all companies and organizations track when an employee retires as opposed to when they just resign.

At the Vancouver Police Department, for instance, an average of 11 officers per year left the department between 2010 and 2020. In 2021, however, that number spiked to 24 officer resignations. The department has seen seven officers depart so far in 2022.

By the Numbers

Number of Social Security beneficiaries over the age of 65:

January 2016: 42,107,000

January 2019: 45,942,000

January 2022: 49,503,000

SOURCE: Social Security Administration

Mean retirement age as of 2021: 62 (Up from 61 in 2019)

Mean Expected retirement age as of 2021: 64 (Down from 65 in 2019)

SOURCE: Gallup Economy and Personal Finance Survey,
conducted April 1-21, 2021

The Clark County Sheriff’s Office announced last week that it would no longer be responding to certain calls due to staffing shortages.

The numbers

So are people retiring en masse?

Nationally, the picture is fuzzy. The number of people over the age of 65 who are collecting Social Security checks was about 42,107,000 in January 2016. In January 2019, that number was about 45,942,000, which is a 9 percent increase between the two years. In January 2022, there were about 49,503,000 folks over 65 collecting Social Security. That’s a smaller increase of 7.75 percent.

But locally, there is some evidence of a bump in retirements.

In the second quarter of 2021, there was a local drop in the number of women aged 65 and older who were employed in education compared with the same period in 2019: 902 in 2019 but 650 in 2021, resulting in a 28 percent decrease. But this wasn’t seen in every industry. The number of women age 65 and over who were employed in health care and social assistance during that period actually rose from 868 to 1,209 — a 39 percent increase.

Still, the number of women over the age of 65 who were working was only up 0.6 percent while the number of men was up by 6.1 percent. Before the pandemic, employment for all those 65 and older was increasing about 6 percent annually.

“It appears to be a pretty substantial drop in older women’s labor force participation rate, and a drop about half as big for men,” said Scott Bailey, regional economist for the Washington Employment Security Department. For Bailey, however, he saw a huge wave of women entering the workforce decades earlier.

“That was sort of the leading edge of women— their labor force participation rate was really going up,” he said. “That age group was hitting 65.”

A question Bailey still asks is what are the underlying shifts in demographics in the overall population.

The so-called baby boomer generation didn’t just start retiring. The oldest of that generation reached retirement age in 2008. And it has picked up steam. In 2019, the number of Americans over the age of 55 grew by 1 million and, over the past two years, it grew by 3.5 million, according to a November study from the Pew Research Center.

The report found that in the third quarter of 2021, just over half of U.S. adults over the age of 55 said they were out of the workforce due to retirement. Just 48.1 percent said the same in the third quarter of 2019.

The working retirement

Kent Graham retired from teaching in Battle Ground in August. In his retirement, however, he is still working. Last month, he and his wife sold their cars, packed their bags and moved to South Korea. Graham is teaching English to 4-, 5- and 6-year-olds there.

“The reason I consider this a retirement is those lesson plans are made for me,” said Graham. “All I have to do is open up the books and it says ‘Do this, this and this.’ Whereas in a public school, I’d have to lay all that out and submit it every week.

“This is still relaxing for me and it lets me do the part that I like to do, which is interacting with the kids,” he said.

Graham works just 30 hours per week with an hour lunch every day. Before and during the pandemic, he was working as a teacher in a public school using a hybrid format, which grew difficult as the situation stretched on and the number of students in his school grew from 125 to more than 400.

“It was crazy,” Graham said. So what he’s doing now is enjoyable.

Graham spent more than 20 years teaching and was in the military before that. He’d always planned to retire at 68, which is essentially what he did: He retired only a couple of days before his 68th birthday. By 68, he would have 24 years vested in the school’s retirement system and he would be eligible to collect Social Security.

The answer

Is this the real story of the Great Retirement? That more of the baby boomer generation is reaching retirement age? Or could they be stepping away temporarily because of their health or money? The short answer is there are no answers, just guesses.

A Gallup poll in May 2021 found that the mean retirement age in America was 62, which increased from 61. It also indicated money may not be a huge factor for most retirees just yet.

The data showed 80 percent of retirees reported having enough money to live comfortably. And that hasn’t changed much, even with the pandemic. Fifty-seven percent of retirees in the U.S. say they rely on Social Security, whereas 36 percent consider a work-sponsored pension to be a major source of income and 35 percent consider a 401(k) to be.

Notably, despite the drastic rise in home prices, the Gallup poll found only 17 percent of seniors reported relying on the equity built up in their home; 59 percent didn’t consider it a source at all, and 23 percent considered it a minor source.

Still, the economy could have an effect on retirement plans.

Hoss doesn’t expect his retirement to be temporary. He doesn’t expect to need to go back to work to earn more money. He does, however, think that he may take up part-time consulting on protocols for visiting dignitaries, if only to share his specialized skills.

“I don’t call it retiring. I call it repurposing,” he said.