When Norma Jasso first started working from home in March 2020, she thought it was fun.
"I could wake up later, not have to commute, not have to put my pumps and my working clothes on," says Jasso, who was a regulatory case manager for San Diego Gas and Electric.
But soon, her days grew longer. She found herself checking email at odd hours. She missed her colleagues. She'd been with the utility for 23 years and found joy being around people.
She hadn't planned to retire for at least five years, but about a year into the pandemic, her daughter called. She was expecting her first child and wanted her mom's help. It was a request Jasso couldn't refuse.
"My mom helped me when I had my daughters, and so I thought, how wonderful. I could pay it back, pay it forward, pay it with love," she says.
She met with a financial planner to figure out whether she had enough money to retire. To her surprise, her 401(k) retirement account had grown considerably, thanks to market gains during the pandemic.
So at 62, Jasso retired.
Millions more retired during the pandemic than expected
Roughly 2 million more people than expected have joined the ranks of the retired during the pandemic, according to The New School's Schwartz Center for Economic Policy Analysis.
While some like Jasso happily chose to retire early, others were forced into retirement after losing their jobs or quitting out of fears of exposure to COVID-19.
This doesn't mean that they're permanently out of the workforce. There's a constant flow in and out of retirement, says researcher Owen Davis, who conducted the analysis.
But for older workers, the time away can make finding a new job harder, and they often return to lower wages.
"Age discrimination plays a role there," says Davis. "This is something we certainly saw during the Great Recession."
Retirement is not an easy choice for many
Yvonne Grace Anderson, 74, was working as a cashier and a customer service representative at a Publix grocery store in Pensacola, Fla., when the coronavirus first arrived in the U.S.
By mid-March 2020, she was experiencing extreme anxiety on the job. With no masks, gloves or disinfectant, Anderson feared catching the virus from one of the thousands of shoppers coming through the store every week. Her daughters shared her fears and implored her to stop working.
Anderson didn't need the income. She's widowed but has enough Social Security to live off of. She worked the part-time grocery job to fund her favorite hobby, painting, and as a way to be active in the community.
"I'm a social butterfly," she says. "I love people. I love to hear their stories."
Just before Christmas, after weathering a difficult hurricane season, she moved to rural Alabama to live with a nephew. With no easy access to transportation, she can't imagine being able to find a new job.
"I wish I could say that I could embrace retirement, but it scares me — not being a part of something," she says.
The closest place she can think of where she might find a job is at the nearby Dollar General store, but with the delta variant surging and no one wearing masks, she's not interested.
"I don't want to be out there," she says.
Retirees are reassessing life and setting priorities
In San Diego, Jasso has taken stock of this moment. She says she has lived two-thirds of her life already. She has just one-third to go.
"What do I want to do with that one-third?" she asks.
Prioritizing family, friends and community is high on her list. She's volunteering with the group MANA de San Diego, mentoring young Latinas.
And she and her husband are now getting their house ready for sale. They're moving up the coast to be close to their new grandson, who was born in early August.
STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
The pandemic is an occasion for some people to change their lives. Some quit their jobs in search of new ones, and others, including even a few NPR colleagues, retired. Though the job market remains strong, many older workers are saying, count me out. NPR's Andrea Hsu reports.
ANDREA HSU, BYLINE: In a video posted by her daughter on Twitter, 74-year-old Yvonne Grace Anderson stands atop an artificial rock. She does a little jig, then raises her arms like an Olympic diver and jumps 10 feet or so into a swimming pool below.
(SOUNDBITE OF WATER SPLASHING)
HSU: Anderson is a grandmother and a very active one. She's worked many jobs over her life as an executive secretary, a legal assistant and, in her 70s, as a cashier for the grocery chain Publix in Pensacola, Fla.
YVONNE GRACE ANDERSON: I'm a social butterfly, so it suited everything about me.
HSU: But coronavirus changed everything. She thinks back to what she experienced in March of 2020.
ANDERSON: Anxiety - extreme, extreme anxiety.
HSU: Think about it - thousands of customers coming through every week, close contact.
ANDERSON: No gloves, no masks, no disinfectants.
HSU: Her daughters called her worried about her safety. She felt she had no choice.
ANDERSON: I quit. I just quit.
HSU: And she hasn't gone back. She's now living with a nephew in rural Alabama. She moved there after weathering four hurricanes last year. The nearest place she could get a job is at The Dollar General. But she's still worried about COVID. She can live off her Social Security, but at 74, Anderson says she wants to be productive.
ANDERSON: I wish I could say that I could embrace retirement, but it scares me not being a part of something, something not being a part of me.
HSU: Two million more people than expected joined the ranks of the retired in the pandemic, according to researchers at The New School. For many like Anderson, it was the fear of the virus that drove them into retirement. Others lost their jobs. Norma Jasso's situation was neither of those. She's 62. For 23 years, she worked for the local utility, San Diego Gas & Electric. When the pandemic hit, she was able to do her job from home.
NORMA JASSO: Right here at this table (laughter). At first, it was fun.
HSU: She liked her job. She wasn't planning on retiring for at least another five years. But then the days grew longer. She'd find herself checking email after dinner and first thing in the morning. She started missing her co-workers. Instead of getting to travel to San Francisco for work trips, she sat through long meetings online.
JASSO: And then my daughter, who was pregnant, said to me, Mom, I really need your help. And, you know, my mom helped me when I had my daughters. And so I thought how wonderful I could pay it back, pay it forward, pay it with love.
HSU: She met with several financial planners to see if it was possible to stop working. And she made a happy discovery.
JASSO: With the stock going well, I mean, all of a sudden, I looked at my 401(k) and was like, oh, wow, I have a bunch of money.
HSU: So Norma Jasso retired on July 1.
JASSO: You know, at this point, I have lived two-thirds of my life. I have one-third to go. What do I want to do with that one-third? Well, I want to help my daughter as she has asked me. I want to have joy in my life. I want to prioritize family and friends and my community.
HSU: She's volunteering with a group mentoring young Latinas. And she and her husband are now getting their house ready for sale. They're about to move north to be close to their new grandson.
Andrea Hsu, NPR News.
(SOUNDBITE OF LANTERNA'S "VERDANT") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.