Retirement may become a deferred dream for millions of Americans in the 1980 s.
No longer is it automatic for those 65 - or even 70 - to stop working. Persistent inflation and concern about changes in the social security program are forcing many approaching retirement age to consider staying on the job, or making late-life career changes.
Social security is in trouble because of the generosity in recent years of the program established in 1935 and because Americans are living longer. When the program was established to provide security against ''poverty-ridden old age ,'' the average life expectancy was 62 and the only retirement age was 65.
Today life expectancy is 74, and under social security's relaxed rules, fully 40 percent of those who claim benefits do so at age 62. Moreover, the percentage of the population 65 or older is rising year by year, while the number paying into social security is dropping steadily. The grim result: Greater demands are being made on a system underwritten by a shrinking percentage of active workers.
Social security is not going to collapse. The checks will keep coming in for retirees and those close to retirement. But those in their mid-50s or younger are likely to face changes.
There is little doubt that the system is going to be renegotiated. Benefits could start later than 65, perhaps at 68, although some lawmakers even talk of 70. The checks may also become smaller and be financed by a higher tax.
Because of this, retirement planning is rapidly changing. Surveys indicate that relatively few workers plan to stay on the job beyond 65 and almost half talk of retiring at 62. In the late 1980s and beyond, early retirements, even with trimmer social security checks, may become a thing of the past. Longer working lives appear inevitable.
Yet such a prospect is not as bad as it once might have seemed. Americans are living longer, and in their later years now tend to be healthier and happier. While disparities exist, there is growing evidence that millions of Americans 65 and over remain active, healthy, and fit - not ready to retire to a rocking chair.
Many are willing and able to work on. But they are not necessarily willing - or always able - to hold the same jobs they did in the past. This has led to the trend toward second and even third careers, a trend that is closely tied to the popularity of early retirements.
The reason for this move toward an old-age work ethic is not economic pressures and uncertainty, but the desire of the elderly to remain productive.
Jobs can lose their challenge after a couple of decades. Today, however, there is a growing recognition that new jobs and careers can be explored once the pressures of family life are dealt with. Indeed, throughout the early and mid-1900s, job choices for many Americans were shaped largely by economic pressures and family concerns. People often worked at one plant until retirement.
But today early retirement and the post-65 work ethic is opening up new career opportunites, and many elderly are going back to jobs they once dreamed of.
Adult education is spurring some of the changes. Educators talk of ''graying campuses'' and large numbers of older Americans studying for pleasure as well as to open up new futures. For instance, one New Jersey woman who was recently nudged into early retirement when her company reduced its office staff is going back to her first career love: law. Now in her 50s, the woman is taking law courses, and she hopes to do paralegal work.
A factory supervisor who retired at 62 had been studying psychology at night for a number of years. He is now taking full-time classes, and hopes to find a ''people-oriented'' job, perhaps in counseling.
As a rule of thumb, those interested in second careers - to add to the retirement kitty or just to remain active - should:
* Decide what they want from it - money, more social contact, a chance to help others, a chance to be creative, success, recognition, or independence after years on the job.
* Take an inventory of work experience, talents, dreams, and hobbies. This often can point to a new career.
* Explore new work areas by talking with people in fields that are of interest. Read up on them at the library.
* Recognize that making a new start at an older age means pressing ahead harder and more imaginatively.
* Dismiss any nervousness about being too late to try something new. Herbert Livesey in his book ''Second Chance'' says there is no ''last chance,'' no final ''termination of options.'' He notes that Colonel Sanders did not begin marketing fried chicken until after his 65th birthday. S.I. Hayakawa launched his one-term Senate career at age 70.
Yet taking on a job late in life does not necessarily mean launching a new ''career.'' It may be full-time or part-time work primarily for added income and something productive to do, something with an easier pace that still allows plenty of leisure time.
Second careers can be as simple as opening a hobby-related business. Hobbies often become the springboard to a fresh start, offering greater financial security as well as providing a sense of accomplishment through owning a business.
In any case, many people should start planning early, recognizing that while they may face a longer working life, the added years could be in a whole new job area.