Britain’s top financial official started the year with a plea. To those who retired early in the pandemic or have not found the right job after furlough, Jeremy Hunt said, “Britain needs you.”
Many analysts have concluded the British economy is stumbling partly because it doesn’t have enough workers. The Bank of England has slashed its expectations about Britain’s economic potential, suspecting that there is little prospect for growth in the labor supply. Without additional workers, productivity and economic activity will falter.
Employment dropped around the world during the worst of the pandemic, but unlike elsewhere, in Britain it hasn’t rebounded. The number of working age people counted as “economically inactive” is still about 490,000 higher than in February 2020, according to data from the Office for National Statistics published Tuesday. Nearly two-thirds of them are over 50.
This is an abrupt reversal from the past, when the gradual growth of Britain’s labor force has been a powerful engine for economic growth. Mr. Hunt, the chancellor of the Exchequer, has made expanding the work force one of his central aims and appears to have early retirees in his sights.
“We will look at the conditions necessary to make work worth your while,” Mr. Hunt said in January. He will announce more details on how he will do so in what Mr. Hunt has called his “back-to-work budget” on Wednesday. More skills training for people over 50 has been announced already and reforms to pensions are expected.
But asking early retirees to go back to work could be an insurmountable challenge.
“Many of these adults who have left the labor market are living comfortably in their early retirement, and there’s little that government can do to change their mind,” Louise Murphy, an economist at the London think tank Resolution Foundation, said in a presentation last month.
Among this group are people who had worked in professional and scientific occupations and came from high-paying industries, according to the Resolution Foundation. They are also more likely to have private pensions and own their homes outright.
The structure of Britain’s pension system helps, too. While workers can’t gain access to their state pension until they are 66, most private pensions allow drawdowns from the age of 55.
“History tells us that those who take early retirement rarely return to the work force,” Ms. Murphy said. Instead, it’s better to focus on access to affordable child care and support for people with health conditions and disabilities to remain employed.
About three dozen people told the The New York Times about their decision to retire early, with most saying they had little intention of returning to work, and certainly not to full-time or office jobs. Many cited relief from the stress of their old roles; or said health conditions or caregiving responsibilities made returning to work impractical.
And most were enjoying a more flexible daily life, exploring hobbies and spending time with friends and family they feared they had neglected when they were working.
Here is a selection of their experiences.
Credit…Sam Bush for The New York Times
“The commute was at the limits of one’s tolerance, really.”
For more than a decade, Jonathan Hollow commuted for four hours each day, from his home on Britain’s east coast to work in London and back.
“The commute was at the limits of one’s tolerance, really,” he said. But what drove him to retire early, as the coronavirus raged in June 2020 and he was 53, was more existential. “I just thought, I don’t want to die doing this job,” he said.
“So I had to do my maths very carefully,” he said, to see if he could bridge the gap until he could access his pension two years later. Mr. Hollow was in a particularly good position to make these calculations: He held a senior job at the Money and Pensions Service, a government agency set up to improve people’s financial literacy and give them advice.
Jonathan Hallow at the Hellenic and Roman Library in London. He’s considering pursuing a doctorate.Credit…Sam Bush for The New York Times
After another year of contract work at the agency, Mr. Hollow stopped working at that job and put his expertise into co-writing a book, called “How to Fund the Life You Want,” that would, among other things, help others making retirement decisions.
Mr. Hollow, now 55, is back commuting to London but much less frequently. He has started pursuing a master's degree in ancient history and had loaded up his schedule with Latin classes. On Fridays, he retreats from the modern world to a London library filled with the works of Plato, Sophocles, Virgil and others.
Next? Maybe a doctorate, he said.
Credit…Alex Atack for The New York Times
“Priorities changed in Covid, and I wanted to spend more time with family.”
Stephanie Munn loved her job as a dermatologist, moving straight through medical school to becoming a full-time consultant, without any career breaks.
But the pandemic moved her practice online, and doing consultations and diagnoses via a screen made her nervous. Meanwhile, she was spending the early pandemic lockdowns with her partner’s son and his young family.
“Priorities changed in Covid, and I wanted to spend more time with family,” she said. “And in the meantime, my mother was failing, too. She’s 86 this year and has dementia. She was needing me more. And I just thought, enough’s enough.”
Ms. Munn retired earlier than planned, in September 2020 at the age of 57.
Among Ms. Munn’s many activities is developing her garden. She also cares for her mother and handles a demanding volunteer job. Credit…Alex Atack for The New York Times
Since then, Ms. Munn keeps a schedule that easily rivals the intensity of her routine while she was employed. She helps care for her mother, visiting her multiple times a week at a nursing home. She looks after her four grandchildren, particularly during school holidays; has a demanding volunteer and training role at her church; is in a choir and serves as its librarian; and is working on a vegetable garden at her home.
“I really don’t know how I had time to work,” she said. “The days are never boring, they are always full on.”
She said she wouldn’t go back to her previous job, not even part time. She’s financially comfortable, and returning to work would demand completing time-intensive medical training requirements each year, regardless of how few hours she worked.
She doesn’t think it’s practical to ask older people to go back to work. “People can be contributing to the economy in another ways,” she added. “That sometimes gets undervalued.”
Credit…Sam Bush for The New York Times
“After lockdown, I thought, I just don’t want that grief.”
Tom Brown doesn’t miss the 5 a.m. decisions he had to make for his last job. He worked as an information technology project manager for the civil service, which included running software updates overnight. Somewhere in the early hours of the morning, he’d have to make a call about whether to push ahead or pull the plug if there was a risk that updates wouldn’t be completed by 7 a.m.
Nor does he miss the 70-minute bus-and-train commute into London. “After lockdown, I thought, I just don’t want that grief,” he said. “That just hastened my decision to leave work.” And so in July, at age 61, he retired.
Tom Brown walks through Selsdon Wood, Croydon, in London. He’d return to work only for an interesting, part-time role.Credit…Sam Bush for The New York Times
Now, Mr. Brown can indulge his love of walking. He goes for long walks solo or with groups, two or three times a week. Sometimes in Britain, sometimes abroad. Sometimes he leads the excursions.
“I walk about 50 miles a week,” he said.
Would he go back to work? Only if it was really interesting part-time work, he said. He’s about to embark on some work as a film extra.
The Wine Aficionado
Credit…Sam Bush for The New York Times
“Over time it became more and more difficult to have the physical time and mental space to continue.”
For about eight months, Jana Hamel juggled her work as a full-time business consultant — advising financial services companies and start-ups in fintech, environmental tech and education tech — with caring for her husband while he underwent cancer treatment. Initially, she worked remotely, by his side in hospital rooms, or at home.
“Over time it became more and more difficult to have the physical time and mental space to continue,” she said. And so, she retired in 2019 when she was 54.
Not long after, she was able to access a portion of her pension tax free and used the money to buy two farmhouses in eastern Canada, where she grew up. They were a better investment for her pension, she said, adding with a laugh that each one cost less than a garage in London.
Besides remotely managing the renovations on the houses and supporting her husband, Ms. Hamel stays connected to her previous job, supporting businesses or sitting on boards in case she wants to return to work.
But her latest passion is wine. Just before the pandemic, she got an advanced-level sommelier qualification. She’s contemplating taken the next and expert-level qualification, the Level 4 Diploma by the Wine & Spirit Education Trust. It requires at least 500 hours of study time, four exams, a written research assignment and tasting a lot of wine.
It would be a fitting goal for what she has termed her “third life,” focused on the projects and people that are “interesting and stimulating, as opposed to drudgery,” she said.
Jana Hamel samples a glass at Handford Wines in South Kensington, London.Credit…Sam Bush for The New York Times