By Christine Jeavans
Given the choice most people say they would like to retire early - 58 was named the optimum age in a recent BBC poll - but moves are afoot to extend our working lives.
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The government is deliberating over whether to outlaw company retirement ages and the CBI has mooted that the state pension age be raised to 70 by 2030.
Arguably the most palatable of the four options outlined in the recent Pensions Commission report is for people to work until later in life in order to ease the pressure on the state pension pot. And many pensioners may feel they have no choice but to supplement their income.
However, an even more fundamental change than working a few extra years is under way.
The supply of younger workers is falling and as it does so, older people may find they are in a position to re-write the rules of employment.
"I suspect the balance of power is going to shift," says Professor Stephen McNair, director of the Centre for Research into the Older Workforce (Crow) at Surrey University.
"What we have found from our research is that people do want to go on working but not full-time.
"People in general feel positive about work.
"If employers design work in appropriate ways, with flexible and part-time options, they can keep an older workforce."
This will not happen in every sector and region at the same time, he says. Indeed the UK has a long way to go even to retain people in work until state pension age.
On average British workers retire at 62.1 - men at 63.1 and women at 61.
It's one of the highest average retirement ages in the EU but still falls below the official pension age of 65 (women's pension age is due to rise from 60 to 65 by 2020).
As the number of young people falls, organisations will find it harder to recruit from their traditional pool of school-leavers and graduates.
"We have a problem with a lack of labour in British firms," says Philip Taylor, Senior Research Associate at the University of Cambridge's Interdisciplinary Research Centre on Ageing (Circa).
Building society Nationwide has a policy of employing older workers
"They are finding it hard to recruit and they need to be looking at other sources.
"Early retirement has been used to downsize over decades so there has not been a culture of employing older workers."
Every time a senior worker retires, a whole lifetime of experience and knowledge about the job or organisation is lost, too.
But even when companies and organisations realise that they need to retain their older workers, there is still a big leap to actually doing something about it.
OLDER WORKERS' ATTRIBUTES
Thinking before acting
"There are some sectors and companies now that are desperate to keep their highly experienced older workers," says Circa's Kerry Platman.
"Employers are going to have to work jolly hard to keep jobs attractive enough to keep them staying. They are going to have to be a bit more visionary than they are at the moment."
Flexibility is the key, says Dr Platman. Older workers have different priorities to juggle such as looking after elderly parents or simply wanting more leisure time.
Some firms are making concerted efforts to recruit and retain older workers, notably those involved in the government's Age Positive campaign.
Employers such as Nationwide say an age diverse workforce makes sound business sense because it better reflects their customer base.
However older people who do want to work can still find themselves forced out of a job simply because of their age.
At 69, computer expert Barry Stoll from Rochford in Essex still feels he has a lot to offer an employer.
"I am active and mobile and my brain cell is still working, I think. I can get my knees under a desk and stare at a computer screen as well as the next person," he says.
Barry was let go from his last job with an internet service provider at the age of 67.
There is no fixed state retirement age
Employers can decide an mandatory retirement age at which employees must retire
The government could ban fixed retirement ages under new EU discrimination law
Mandatory retirement ages are different to state pension age
Pension age is set to remain at 65 (60 for women until 2020)
"I joined them when I was 63 which was their normal retirement age but they said 'you've got the skills and abilities, we'll take you on'."
Four years later the firm downsized and Barry, by then on an annual contract, was one of the first out the door.
"They looked down the list of ages and said 'you've done a good job but we've decided not to renew your contract, here's a gold watch, thank you and goodbye'."
He is philosophical rather than angry with the firm but is sorry to have been forced into retirement.
"It's about giving people the choice. At the moment there is no choice. There is a cut-off point - end of story. One day you're employable, the next you're not - seems cock-eyed to me."
It seems cock-eyed to Age Concern, too, which says organisations succumb to myths about older workers.
"There is a general stereotype that you become less productive as you get older, that you are wanting to slow down. But there is a lot of evidence that that's not true at all," said a spokesperson for the pressure group.
Age Concern wants the government to scrap mandatory retirement ages under EU anti-discrimination legislation that comes into force in 2006.
However the CBI favours having a "default" retirement age of 65 which workers could challenge on an individual basis if they wished to.
"It is critical to have a cut-off point to employment," says Susan Anderson, CBI Director of Human Resources Policy.
"Not having a cut-off point would embitter the retirement process and trigger more employment tribunals."
Potential moves towards working longer have set alarm bells ringing among those who fear that retirement will be squeezed into a few short years between work and death.
"We believe people have a right to retirement after 40 years of work," says Neil Duncan-Jordan of the National Pensioners' Convention.
"In certain sectors, especially manual workers, the average life expectancy is in the early 70s. So [working longer] might only give them a few years of retirement."
Philip Taylor also urges caution: "The way things are going white-collar workers will be able to choose what to do [in retirement] and put more money away to pay for that.
"For blue-collar workers the choice is very limited. They are either forced out because of ill health or forced to carry on because they can't afford not to.
"We don't want to be working until we drop."