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Many older workers retired after the pandemic gave them time to rethink priorities

A MARTINEZ, HOST:

Even amid record inflation, there has been some good news about the economy in recent months. Americans are getting back to work, making up for much of the pandemic's decline in the workforce. But who's not back? - many older workers. NPR's Andrea Hsu reports from Southern Maryland.

ANDREA HSU, BYLINE: Lately, Dean Hebert has been hard at work - on his house.

DEAN HEBERT: Well, this is my living room. And I'm proud of this floor. A month ago, this was terrible carpet.

HSU: It's now beautifully laid laminate that looks just like hardwood flooring.

HEBERT: It really has transformed this room. And now I sit here and go, why am I leaving? This is a great house.

HSU: Why he's leaving is because he just retired from his job at the University of Maryland Honors College. He'd been an academic advisor there for 28 years and thought he might stick around for another five. But the pandemic changed everything. First came working from home - no more hour-plus commute each way.

HEBERT: I had time in the morning and then time in the evening thinking about and obsessively looking at retirement planners - you know, calculators and things like that.

HSU: And then came a second happy development.

HEBERT: I reconnected with someone down in North Carolina that I had known years and years ago.

HSU: But after remote work ended, getting down to North Carolina to see her was harder. So he started doing the math to see if he could make something work. Now, this is a guy who grows his own vegetables, cuts his own firewood and heats his home with a wood stove. So you can imagine, after years of frugal living, plus big gains in the market, things were looking good.

HEBERT: And it just dawned on me at some point that there's enough money there, if I worked for five more years, the only result of that would be I would die with more money in the bank.

HSU: Instead, Dean Hebert chose love. He bought a fixer-upper in North Carolina when interest rates were still 3%. And at the end of July, when he was just shy of 55, he retired.

Lauren Bauer, a fellow in economic studies at the Brookings Institution, is not surprised by stories like his. She's seen them in the data.

LAUREN BAUER: One of the reasons that we saw older workers feel empowered to leave the labor market during COVID is that their balance sheets were fine.

HSU: And that's especially true for college-educated older workers. The pandemic gave many of them time to rethink their priorities. It also left many of them in good financial shape. Bauer points out this is very unlike what happened after the Great Recession, when the housing market crashed and many older workers couldn't retire because they couldn't afford to. In fact, in those years, older workers helped grow the economy, making up for the under-55 crowd who'd dropped out of the workforce.

BAUER: But since COVID, it's reversed.

HSU: Now older workers, including those 65 and over, sitting on the sidelines are a big reason the workforce hasn't fully recovered from the pandemic. But Bauer says this isn't all bad news. After all, it's a good thing when older workers can retire.

BAUER: I would rather have people, you know, stay out of the labor force because they're able to retire with financial security than drive them back into the labor force because their situations have become more precarious.

HSU: Of course, these are uncertain economic times. Inflation is at 8%. The stock market's tanked. Dean Hebert's investment accounts are down 21%. But he's got his house on the market now. And once that sells, he thinks he can ride this downturn out. And if not...

HEBERT: It's in the back of my mind as, like, plan B. I could work. I could get a part-time job.

HSU: For now, though, you're more likely to catch him riding his motorcycle.

HEBERT: Oh, there're such great roads down there. You know, I'm out in western North Carolina with the mountains and everything.

HSU: Enjoying his retirement. Andrea Hsu, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF GABRIEL GARZON-MONTANO SONG, "CANTIGA") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Andrea Hsu is NPR's labor and workplace correspondent.