Since the first baby boomers started feeling a little achy getting out of bed in the morning, there have been dire warnings about a federal retirement wave.
That’s the phenomenon in which massive numbers of people born in 1946-1960 who are working for the federal government will hit retirement eligibility within a relatively short period and take vast institutional knowledge out the door with them.
That prospect has driven a number of federal personnel policies over the years, including most recently the authority for phased retirement. But it also has played a big role in the thinking that went into policies designed to make staying with the government more attractive, such as expanding telework and alternative work schedules and other work-life balance policies.
However, the experience has been different. The retirement wave is just lapping at the beach, not destroying it.
The latest statistics from OPM show that among non-postal executive branch agencies, there were 68,616 retirements in fiscal year 2014, which ended last September. That’s up by about 3,000 from 2013 but actually down from 2012’s level by about 700.
(Note: Including retirements from the Postal Service—as some who comment on this issue do—is misleading since USPS has been offering early retirement and buyout incentives in order to downsize in recent years, artificially raising the numbers. Also, being an independent operation, the Postal Service isn’t a factor in the government brain drain calculus.)
Over a 10 year period, there were a total of 609,584 non-postal retirements, meaning an average of just about 61,000 per year. So the 2014 total was a bit higher than the 10-year average, but not by a lot.
To an extent, the increase in retirements in 2011-2014 reflects the delayed actions of some who would have retired earlier except for the economic downturn that hit in 2008. Even though the recession officially ended rather quickly, according to the economic measures used for such things, the impact has lingered both emotionally and in terms of financial security and outside job prospects (for those thinking of working elsewhere after retiring from the government). Retirements fell from above 62,000 in 2007 to about 59,000, 46,000 and 53,000 over 2008-2010 before rebounding starting in 2011.
The bottom line is that over the last seven years, when the worst of the retirement wave was supposedly coming upon us, the average number of retirements was that same 61,000 as over the entire 10-year period.
The recession’s lingering impact is reflected in another statistic, the increasing average age at retirement, which now stands at 61.4 years, up from 59.5 in 2007. In other words, employees are putting off retirement on average by two years.
And that’s despite an increase in the percentage of new retirees who went out under mandatory retirement—which mainly applies to law enforcement, firefighting and air traffic control jobs—from 0.9 to 1.5 percent of total retirements in that time. The average age of a mandatory retiree is 57.5, bringing down the overall average.
Length of service at retirement meanwhile decreased somewhat over that time, from 28.3 to 26.9 years, which mainly reflects the increasing portion of those who retire under FERS, who tend to have shorter federal careers than those who retire under CSRS.
The average FERS length of service at retirement is 21.7 years versus 35.7 under CSRS: FERS covered 62.7 percent of all 2014 retirees, up from 31.2 percent in fiscal year 2005.
That’s a lot of numbers, but the picture overall is one of a relatively stable retirement flow, whose main changes reflect the impact of the recession that people still feel and the impact of the increasing share of FERS people among the annual cadre of new retirees.
Fortunately, the helpful policies such as phased retirement that were put in place in expectation of a retirement wave aren’t going to end. What needs to end is the panic.