- Paula Routly ©️ Seven Days
- Sunset over Lake Champlain
What do John Brumsted, Rita Markley and Jeanne Collins have in common — other than very long job titles at the University of Vermont Health Network, Committee on Temporary Shelter and Rutland Northeast Supervisory Union, respectively?
The same thing that ties former Vermont medical examiner Steven Shapiro, Main Street Landing "redeveloper" Melinda Moulton, TV meteorologists Tom Messner and Sharon Meyer, and state representative and Winooski city councilor Hal Colston.
All are high-profile Vermonters who have retired — or announced plans to retire — during the pandemic.
At first I thought I was imagining an increase in the number of semi-senior leaders leaving the workforce. Most of these people are around my age, 61, and they've been making headlines for the 30-plus years I've been a journalist; of course I'm going to notice their names.
But national data confirm more of us are giving up work earlier than planned — in some cases, altogether. Analysis by the Pew Research Center, which tracks this stuff, shows that in September 2021, 50.3 percent of U.S. adults ages 55 and older said they were out of the labor force due to retirement. Two years earlier, before the onset of the pandemic, it was 48.1 percent. Countrywide, a 2.2 percent increase amounts to a "silver tsunami."
In Vermont, population 645,000, that means 14,190 more retirees might be strolling contentedly on the Burlington bike path on a weekday afternoon. The numbers are likely higher, in fact, because the state skews older — more of its residents are in the affected age range.
As I prepared to write this column for our annual Money & Retirement Issue, I emailed Seven Days staffers, asking for local examples of the trend. Art director Diane Sullivan replied: "Not big-name or pandemic-related, but my vet, mechanic, eye doctor and physician all retired at about the same time. That was something. I don't think I'll be retiring 'til I'm dead."
Why the exodus? Beyond baby boomer demographics, I have some theories. Vermont is a hard place to make a living. In some sectors, the pandemic — and resulting staffing and business challenges — made it next to impossible. The situation demanded an investment of energy and innovation that many workers and employers of a certain age weren't willing to make. And being stuck at home for two years, facing down the last chapter of your life, has a way of changing your priorities.
Of course, you need money to stop working. In a story from last November, Pew reported that many older adults have profited from the pandemic — that is, household wealth has been rising since the onset, leaving them better off financially than their predecessors during the Great Recession. During that economic downturn, from December 2007 to June 2009, many seniors had to postpone their retirements.
Recent rising inflation could have the same effect, slowing the plans of Vermonters who are starting to think about riding into the sunset.
Last week, while walking home from the chiropractor, I ran into the Flynn's founding executive director, Andrea Rogers, my first boss in Burlington. I worked for her in the early '80s, when the performing arts center was getting off the ground, and I profiled her for Seven Days in 2009, the year she announced her retirement after three decades running the place.
She had been incredibly honest in the interview for that story. "I'm not at my best anymore," she told me then, when she was 69. "I started forgetting people's names. I'll have a really great conversation with somebody and, three days later, I've totally forgotten it. What makes you good at this job is that you build on every connection you make."
I admired and learned from Rogers but never considered her a contemporary. The 20 years between us seemed vast then. Now, not so much. We chatted about old times and our respective ailments on the corner of South Union and Cliff streets. She mentioned a recent hospital visit so, when we parted, I offered to help her across the street. "I should help you across the street," she shot back playfully — a reference to my bad back.
With that, we promised to have lunch some day and went our separate ways, choosing each step very carefully.