Publisher's Perspective

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The song “It’s Five O’ Clock Somewhere” popularized by Jimmy Buffett often is viewed as being about drinking: as that’s the hour it’s socially acceptable to begin, and the singer is rationalizing an early start.

Actually, it’s mainly about escaping the job. The morning has gone badly and slowly, and he is rationalizing knocking off before quitting time, stretching his lunch break at a bar across the entire afternoon.

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Likely you know a co-worker who is singing that same tune but on a larger scale, pining for not just the end of the work day but of the work life. For them, the title might be something like “It’s Saturday Somewhere,” as in the description of retirement as “Saturday every day.”

Such co-workers can—and often will, with relish even—tell you down to the day when they’ll first be eligible to retire, even if that date is long into the future, and state confidently that will be their last day.

That was underscored once again in the most recent Federal Employee Viewpoint Survey, conducted last fall which among many other things asks about intent to leave the government, including for retirement. The result has been a highly consistent pattern over a number of years.

In the 2021 poll, 4 percent said they are planning to retire in less than a year and 3 percent said in one year. In the 2020 survey the percentages were the same. Before that, the questions were slightly different, with 4 percent in each year over 2017-2019 saying they planned to retire within a year and 10 percent between one and three years.

But will they? Four percent of the 2.2 million executive branch employees represented in that survey—it doesn’t cover the Postal Service with its 600,000-plus more—is 88,000.

Now look at actual retirements. Again, excluding the Postal Service, the numbers of voluntary retirements over 2017-2021 (on a fiscal year basis) were about 58,000, 60,900, 60,500, 56,900 and 62,000.

Note that the numbers include some employees who already had reached retirement eligibility and were not planning to retire within a year but ended up doing it. Common reasons for this include the onset of a serious medical condition by the employee or a family member.

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What explains the gap between expectations and reality? It’s not a matter of demographics; the average age of federal workers has held about steady at 47 for many years, as has the percentage of those already eligible at 15 percent.

There’s a clue to be found by looking back a little farther, and it suggests that it’s largely a matter of finances. During the immediate years before 2009, voluntary retirements were steady at just above or below 50,000 a year. In that year they fell to 39,000. What had happened? Well, stock markets had plunged over about a six-month period.

Does that sound like anything that’s happened recently?

Those losses were cited as delaying the retirements of many federal employees whose Thrift Savings Plan accounts represent a big part of their retirement savings and who had at least some of that money in stocks. They pulled back to give themselves time to rebuild those accounts, while also adding to what they had expected to be their annuity benefit by working longer and boosting their high-3 salary figures.

The markets started recovering in spring of 2009 but moving into retirement requires achieving a sense of financial security, and that confidence had been shaken. The markets didn’t regain what they had lost until into 2010 and federal retirements didn’t return to their prior levels until 2011.

Does that sound like a reasonable expectation of what lies ahead?

The prospect of Saturday every day is out there. But for many federal employees, it may now be a day or two farther away.

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