Nurses Are Talking About the Real Reasons They Postpone Retirement

Laura A. Stokowski, RN, MS


May 07, 2015

In This Article

Why Aren't Nurses Retiring?

A recent study reviewed on Medscape in the article "Why Aren't Nurses Retiring?" documented a trend for nurses to prolong their careers compared with nurses whose careers spanned the later decades of the 20th century. The investigators speculated that this might largely be a consequence of nurses loving their jobs, and being reluctant to surrender the feeling of camaraderie, teamwork, and job satisfaction attached to being a nurse. Commenters to Medscape, however, in the main painted a very different picture about why nurses are deferring retirement.

Show Me the Money

By far, the most common reason given for postponing retirement was financial. One nurse wrote:

"It doesn't surprise me at all that nurses aren't retiring en masse, no matter how desperately they may be longing to. I don't know any nurses who are financially secure enough to retire. Our wages stopped keeping up with inflation decades ago."

Apparently, it all comes down to money. Nurses who bypass a typical retirement age keep on working because they can't afford to stop, or in many cases, even cut back to part-time work. And the financial barriers to retirement are abundant. Pensions at the poverty level? Check. Investments tanking along with the economy? Check. Children still in college or living at home again because they can't find jobs? Check.

Nursing, as a career, offers many benefits, but it's not without drawbacks. Many nurses work part-time for years, sometimes their entire careers, to enable them to care for young children or older parents, and as such do not earn retirement benefits, as explained by this nurse: "Hospitals are notorious for hiring a large part-time and per diem staff so that they do not have to pay into pensions and benefits. Although we may have [individual retirement accounts], who really saves enough to retire early?"

The economic impact of divorce was mentioned by many nurses to shed light on why they, and their colleagues, couldn't afford to retire when they wanted to.

"There are far more divorced nurses in the workforce than there were in the past. These nurses are now single parents who are unable to realize the economic stability found in a two-parent household. With only one income to depend on, retirement is not going to happen any time soon." The sudden loss of a spouse through illness, death, or divorce leaves many nurses unexpectedly carrying the burden of being the sole wage earner for the family.

"We have seen the cost of living rise at an alarming rate. The uncertainty that the economy will remain stable is an overwhelming reason why nurses are reluctant to retire. We daily see the devastating effects in the elderly on fixed incomes."

A nurse from Australia reveals that this problem is worldwide. "We are paid enough for the basics—rent, food, utilities, insurance—but it is not and never has been enough to save for retirement. I will be put in a grave directly from work, in the tradition of the generations that came before me."

A similar touch of irony was evident in other comments—a justifiable reaction to the situation in which nurses find themselves after tirelessly working for decades with no hope of a reward in the form of an easy retirement:

"With healthcare costs through the roof, and the ever-increasing age at which we can qualify for Social Security benefits and Medicare, it feels like a conspiracy to keep us working until we drop dead. Otherwise, we won't be able to afford all the drugs it takes to keep our overstressed, aging bodies going," said one nurse.

Although one nurse gloomily advises her peers "to start saving for the day an injury robs you of your career, identity, and purpose in life," not every nurse who commented plans on letting a miniscule pension get in the way of retirement:

"I am 59. Even though my pension will be pretty small, I know that as a bedside nurse, I simply will not be able to do the work much longer. Between the lifting and unrealistic expectations of patients, families, and especially management, I can't deal with this environment too much longer. Is it better to have a catastrophic health failure while working or use a food bank once a month?"

And another nurse cautions, "Don't be scared off by a pension that is below the poverty line! This is the only life you get, so make sure you live it on your own terms, not like some worn-out workhorse."

Working Hard for the Benefits

"After 40 years of working full-time, I would retire in a heartbeat. I'm ready and willing, but not able. I carry the benefits."

The full retirement age for receiving Social Security benefits depends on the individual's birth year. For those born before 1960, full retirement is set at age 66 years, whereas for those born during or after 1960, the retirement age is 67. Reduced benefits can be taken at age 62. Medicare eligibility begins at age 65.

Health insurance is essentially holding many retirement-age nurses hostage. Hand in hand with needing to work for the income is the potential loss of health insurance coverage should the nurse retire before the official age of retirement. "I have been a registered nurse since 1977 and would love to hang up my stethoscope, but I can't, because I need the insurance until I am Medicare-eligible." Many nurses are the sole carriers of health insurance for their families. "There is a trend for employers to cut benefits, which has forced many nurses into the role of providing health insurance (and other benefits) for their families—for many, a role that traditionally belonged to their husbands."

A theme that became apparent is the irony of nurses working for 40 years or more, developing work-related illnesses or injuries, and then running the risk of being left without healthcare coverage. Wouldn't it be nice, asked one nurse, "if nurses got a break on health insurance premiums?" Another nurse agrees, asking, "Why don't the largest group of healthcare providers have health insurance when they retire? Why aren't we receiving pensions in line with the body-breaking, lifesaving jobs we do?"

Another nurse shared a similar sentiment of being unappreciated. "Hard-working nurses spend their careers caring for your loved ones in time of sickness and death, yet we have the benefits of a fast-food worker!" And a clinical nurse specialist sees only this option: "I will be able to retire at age 62 only if I move to another country where I can be covered under a national health program, or where healthcare costs are lower."

"Retirement is not an option for most nurses aged 65 years or younger. Some nurses want to work and be useful and contribute to society, others wants to retire and enjoy the time they have left, but they need health insurance coverage. Although Medicare can help, it is not enough," said a nurse. Many nurses pointed out that private insurance would be cost-prohibitive, consuming a disproportionate amount of small fixed incomes and meager retirement savings.


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