'I'm too young to retire': What forced these workers to retire before they were ready

 Randy Seacat expected to retire at 75 if he retired at all. 

The labor market had other plans.

Seacat lost his customer support job at Amazon Web Services in late 2020, at age 58. He has not found work since, even after applying for more than 1,700 jobs and sitting through 51 interviews. Now 61, he submitted application No. 1,746 the other day but still has no job.

“I’ve never had a problem having a job in my lifetime,” he says. “I do really great on the phone interview, but when they find out how old I am, the door slams. It’s over.”

If you’re one of many Americans who think you’ll work till 75, or 70, or even 65, think again.

The average American retires at 62, according to two annual surveys of working and retired Americans, published by the Employee Benefit Research Institute and the Transamerica Center for Retirement Studies.

Sixty-two is not particularly old. The average over-50 worker expects to retire at 67, according to Transamerica. Average life expectancy is 77 ½. Our president is running for reelection at 81.

But few of us get to retire when we want. We might imagine easing out of our careers on our own terms. Yet, in reality, retirement often comes suddenly and unexpectedly, via a corporate layoff or a household health scare.

Here are the stories of seven Americans who retired years earlier than they had planned, for reasons largely beyond their control.

For three of the seven, early retirement seeded financial ruin. The others exited work into a retirement that, while comfortable enough, fell far short of the life they had envisioned. One, Seacat, is still fighting retirement, hoping to rejoin the labor force one day.

1,746 applications, but no job

Seacat has a range of skills, from internet marketing to videogame design to search engine optimization to voice acting to songwriting. Back in the ‘80s, he played and sang in Seattle hair bands.

For most of the past decade, Seacat worked at the Amazon subsidiary as a technical customer support associate, helping with cloud computing. He lost his job when the company shipped it overseas, taking a severance package along with some aging colleagues.

“And I thought, ‘OK, I’ll be able to get back to work, no big deal,’” he said. “Well, that didn’t happen.”

Seacat lived in the Seattle suburbs. His job search ranged north to Alaska, south to Portland and east to Montana.

Randy Seacat: 1,746 applications, but no job.  

He soon saw a pattern. Applications hit a wall when the employer figured out his approximate age. Often, they’d tell him he was overqualified.

When an application reaches the interview stage, he said, “everything goes great, until they discover that I’m a boomer.”

Even after 1,746 failed applications, Seacat says he isn’t giving up.

“I’m too young to retire,” he said. “I can’t get Social Security,” a benefit that kicks in at 62, “and I burned through most of my savings trying to save my home.”

Seacat lived on retirement savings until the autumn of 2022, when they ran out and he was forced to leave his rented home. 

He purchased an RV. He could live in it, but he can’t afford to rent a space in an RV park, because those slots run $800 to $1,200 a month.

“I am pretty much homeless,” he said, staying with family between Seattle and Portland.

His belongings sit in a storage space that, like the RV space, he can no longer afford. If he doesn’t pay the bill soon, he said, “it’s gonna be gone.”

It’s hard to imagine a more industrious job seeker. Even so, Seacat said he’s surprised he doesn’t get more empathy when he shares his story.

“People tell me all the time, ‘I know people who are 60 who are working,’” he said. “And I tell them, ‘There’s a big difference between working at 60 and getting hired at 60.’”

A career unravels in a fateful fall

Larry Zarzecki planned to work till he dropped.

He would put in 35 years at his Maryland police department, then segue into a job in security, following a time-honored tradition in law enforcement.

At 49, Zarzecki’s retirement plan unraveled, along with his life.

Larry Zarzecki planned to work till he dropped. But his retirement plans unraveled at 49, after a Parkinson's diagnosis.  

He developed a tremor in his hand. He started struggling with balance. At length, a doctor diagnosed Parkinson’s disease.

Zarzecki balked at telling loved ones and colleagues. But soon enough, the disease announced itself. An ill-timed freezing episode in 2013 sent him toppling down the stairs of his family home. He suffered a brain injury and severe spinal damage. Doctors wondered if he’d ever walk again, let alone work.

He spent 21 months in the hospital, learning to walk and talk all over again, and relearning the story of his own life: The brain injury had wiped out his memory.

Larry Zarzecki, 61, lives on his disability pension, occupying a modest in-law cottage next to his son’s home in Stevensville, on Maryland’s Eastern Shore. Zarzecki … Show more   

Zarzecki wanted to work again, but no one wanted him.

“I couldn’t even get a job as a greeter at Walmart,” he said. “Everything is fine until you get to the point where you have to start disclosing medical issues that may put you or someone else in danger, or in harm’s way.

“Look, I’m a liability. I get it.”

On the day of his catastrophic fall, Zarzecki had a police pension and $100,000 in retirement savings. He planned to max out the pension and build the retirement account to $500,000 with many more years of work.

“We wouldn’t have had to worry about money,” he said.

After the fall, Zarzecki’s wife divorced him. Hospital bills and medication co-pays chewed through his retirement account.

Now 61, Zarzecki lives on his disability pension, occupying a modest in-law cottage next to his son’s home in Stevensville, on Maryland’s Eastern Shore.

He recently paid off the last of his hospital bills, leaving him debt-free. But he still faces $3,000 a month in out-of-pocket costs for medication. He has no savings, and his income is more or less fixed. Simply put, he’s broke.

Every day, he jokes, Zarzecki must decide “whether to treat or eat”: to manage his many lingering symptoms with a dozen daily meds, or to purchase food.

Larry Zarzecki speaks with Verona Palatines at the Kent Senior Center, where he volunteers, on March 22, 2024. Zarzecki, 61, lives on his disability pension, … Show more   

Retired at 55, with kids still in college

Virginia Crespo had not planned to retire at 55.

She had two kids in college and a good job that she loved, teaching history and government at a suburban high school near Annapolis, Maryland.

But Crespo was also living with fibromyalgia, a chronic illness that causes pain, fatigue and brain fog. One morning, after teaching her first class, she thought, “How can I teach four more?” She put in her notice, setting her retirement for July 2002.

A few months shy of that date, her husband came home from work and announced that his employer was shutting down.

Virginia Crespo had not planned to retire at 55. But a chronic illness made the decision for her.  

And thus, both Crespos retired at 55. Both had planned to work for several more years.

With combined salaries over $200,000, husband and wife could have expected to earn at least $1 million between ages 55 and 60.

Instead, the couple made do on Virginia’s pension, which paid about $32,000 a year, plus annual cost-of-living increases. They could no longer afford to cover their children’s college educations. Both children took out student loans. After college, they were on their own.

Joseph Crespo had a retirement account, worth about $150,000, but the 2008 recession gutted it.

Virginia Crespo sends emails in her home for her volunteer work on March 21, 2024. Crespo had not planned to retire at 55 in 2002. … Show more   

Those setbacks left them with a more modest retirement, living on Virginia’s teacher pension and Social Security. The Crespos retooled their bucket list.

“We traveled the United States some, but not the world,” she said. “We did get to see the Grand Canyon.”

Joseph Crespo died in 2015. Virginia now lives around the corner from the old family home, in a smaller dwelling.

She does not regret the decisions they made more than 20 years ago: Life takes unexpected turns.

“It is difficult to speculate how things might have been different,” she said. “We could have paid for our children’s college bills and avoided student loans. We could have paid off the mortgage.”

Virginia Crespo shows a photograph of her and her late husband, Joseph, on March 21, 2024. Crespo retired earlier than planned at 55 in 2002, … Show more   

Booted from a top-drawer tech job at 61

At 67, Peter Plamondon is ensconced in a comfortable retirement with his wife in Sierra Vista, Arizona, in the Sonoran Desert.

But he kicks himself at how much more comfortable it might have been.

Peter Plamondon, 67, is living a comfortable retirement in the Sonoran Desert. But it could have been a lot more comfortable.  

Thirteen years ago, at 54, Plamondon started working with a financial planner. They crafted a retirement plan: Plamondon would work until he was 66 or 67. He would max out his retirement savings in the final six or seven years, adding another $500,000 to his 401(k).

And then, at 61, Plamondon lost his job in a layoff.

Plamondon worked at a tech firm, specializing in helping other tech companies build relationships with Microsoft, where he’d previously worked. He earned stellar reviews.

But he was also the oldest worker on his team, “at least 15 years older than anyone else, and 30 years older than some,” he said. And he earned a generous six-figure salary.

The layoffs targeted “the expensive employees,” he said, with “more experience, higher salaries, and higher healthcare costs than twenty-somethings.”

Undaunted, Plamondon applied for other jobs that seemed perfect fits. He’d never had trouble finding work.

A handful of job leads yielded interviews. “And then, nothing,” he said.

Each time, Plamondon believes, his application hit a wall when the hiring manager “figured out that I wasn’t 25. You can’t have 25 years’ experience and be 25.”

After more than 100 applications, Plamondon gave up. He and his wife left Redmond, Washington, the pricey Pacific Northwest address of Microsoft, and moved to the Arizona desert.

Plamondon found work as a technical writer, earning $85 an hour and grossing $20,000 a year: A drop in the bucket, next to his former salary.

Even that didn’t last. The arrival of ChatGPT upended the technical writing marketplace, allowing employers to hire lower-paid writers who leveraged AI to cut corners. The hourly rate dropped to $40.

Despite the setbacks, the Plamondons have a secure retirement. Sierra Vista has a much lower cost of living than greater Seattle.

But the couple had planned to spend their retirement years seeing the world. That is no longer an option.

Recent events have Plamondon thinking about his father-in-law.

“He thought he was going to work till he was 67, 68, and life intervened,” he said. The father-in-law retired early with a broken hip, shaving several years off his career.

“Here was this example, right in front of my face, and I did not internalize it,” he said.

At 58, a choice between career and care

Betty Houseknecht planned to work until age 65, at least, selling diamond engagement rings and fancy watches for a jeweler in suburban Baltimore.

Then, in 2012, her 96-year-old father fell and broke his neck. Her 95-year-old mother needed help caring for him.

Betty Houseknecht had planned to work to at least 65. Family health issues forced her to retire at 58.  

Houseknecht’s employer “would have given me maybe a month off,” she said. As it turned out, she would need eight years.

Houseknecht left her gemology job at 58 to care for her parents. Her mother died a few months later. She spent the next few years caring for her father and her husband, David, who had just retired from a management job at UPS and was struggling with diabetes.

David Houseknecht died in 2016, at age 64.

“The last nine months of his life were really a nightmare for me, between taking care of him and my dad,” Betty said.

The next year, she put her father in assisted living after a bad fall. She visited him for several hours a day. He died in 2019, at 103.

“I had a tough eight years,” Houseknecht said. “When I look back now, I don’t know how I survived it.”

They were also costly years. 

The couple had planned to pay off their own home and a second one they owned in Sarasota, Florida, and to amass at least $1 million in retirement savings, leveraging Betty’s job and David’s pension and Social Security income. 

Betty’s early retirement and David’s declining health laid waste to those plans. Shortly before David died, the couple sold the second home.

Both David and Betty had retired at 58. Their early exits cost them hundreds of thousands of dollars in lost salary and savings.

Betty, now 71, lives in a condo near the family home.

“My plan is to stay there till the bitter end,” she said. “Hopefully, the money will continue to grow and not run out.”

Houseknecht has about $80,000 in annual retirement income, between her late husband’s pension, Social Security and savings. She has an aging car, but it’s paid off. She watches her spending. She doesn't travel much. She misses the Sarasota home, “especially this time of year,” she said: Many of her friends are snowbirds.

If the need should arise for long-term care, she hopes to hire help and remain in her condo. Still, she wonders how many years she has left.

“I could easily live to be a hundred plus,” she said. “That’s kind of a scary thought. I could have another whole lifetime to live yet.”

Retired since 44, and looking to the future

At age 44, Deborah Scott-Nettles hadn’t thought much about retirement. Yet, after a series of setbacks, she found herself retired.

Scott-Nettles had worked a range of disparate jobs: Runway model. IRS customer service agent. In 2001, she was working in a college admissions office and dabbling in coursework, looking for a new career path. 

Deborah Scott-Nettles, retired at age 44 and after a series of setbacks is still looking towards the future rather than worrying about finances and retirement.  

Over several months, her plans fell apart. In October 2001, she tripped on a buckle in a sidewalk and fell, dealing permanent injuries to her neck. Months later, her longtime boyfriend attacked her with an axe.

“I think he just snapped,” she said. “The next thing I remember, I was out in the street, screaming for help.”

The axe attack left Scott-Nettles with brain injuries. But she would wait five years to reap disability benefits. 

After a stay in a domestic violence shelter, she wound up homeless and penniless. She eventually moved in with her grown daughter. The boyfriend went to prison.

Between the neck and head injuries, Scott-Nettles lives now in constant pain.

“I have so many different kinds of headaches, they don’t know what to call them,” she said.

She tried to return to full-time work or study but found she couldn’t cope with either. 

Before the injuries, Scott-Nettles had earned $60,000 to $70,000 in some years. Now, at 66, she collects about $2,000 a month in disability and Social Security. She also draws income through a training program at Legacy Link, a nonprofit that supports adults with disabilities. She lives in Gainesville, Georgia.

She is thinking of training as a Zumba instructor. She dreams of becoming a motivational speaker, and maybe writing a book.

“If you have the strength, have the fortitude, you can rise above whatever your circumstances are,” she said. 

Though she has no retirement savings, Scott-Nettles does not worry about the future. She is savoring her time with her six grandchildren.

“I don’t want for anything,” she said. “I’m driving a nice car. I’m living in a nice apartment. My refrigerator’s full.”

Put out to pasture at 56

John Guth planned to work at least until 60, overseeing maintenance on the St. Louis city bus fleet. 

Then, Covid hit, a nightmare scenario for public transit. Lost revenue drove the city to offer early retirement. Guth was 56. He rethought his retirement plans.

John Guth retired early at 56 with very little wiggle room in his budget for spending. Today, at 59, Guth is a hobby farmer.  

“I had seen several of my coworkers and friends, who could have retired, keep saying, ‘One more year, just one more year,’” Guth said. 

“One of them was diagnosed with stage four prostate cancer, one was killed in a motorcycle accident on his way home from work, one died from liver cancer, and two died from heart attacks. One, in the middle of the shop floor. There were others, too. They could have retired and instead worked to the day they died. 

“I promised myself that wouldn’t be me.”

Guth took early retirement. 

Retiring early left Guth and his wife “very little wiggle room” with their finances, he said. His income dropped by two-thirds, the difference between his full salary and a city pension. His wife, who raised five children and had little time for work, draws only $600 a month in Social Security. Guth himself is not yet eligible for Social Security.

“I wish we were a little better-prepared financially,” he said. “But we are doing okay.”

The Guths sold their house in St. Louis and moved into a rural property they had bought in 2017 as their retirement home. They used the proceeds from the family home to pay off their remaining debt, as well as the last of the student debt they owed for the children, who are grown.

“We are debt-free, and we want to stay there,” he said.

Today, at 59, John Guth is a hobby farmer. He raises goats, rabbits and chickens. The goats provide milk and cheese. The hens lay eggs. The rabbits and chickens provide meat. Food inflation hasn’t affected him much.

“Rabbit meat has become 40-50% of our diet now,” Guth said: Ground rabbit for chili, sausage and pasta sauce, the latter inspiring a dish he calls Bunny Alfredo.

“Between my pension and our Social Security, we should have enough to get by,” he said. Guth also has $200,000 in retirement savings, but his plan is to save it for emergencies. He drives two trucks, both 2004 models. The Guths have no real travel budget: “We’re pretty much homebodies,” he said.

“The one thing I love about what we’re doing here is, it keeps you mentally and physically active,” he said. “Before we retired, I didn’t know how to build a goat fence.”

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