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Changing jobs before retirement can be fulfilling - or financially dangerous

For millions of Americans, the road to retirement can be strewn with potholes, or at least a series of secondary jobs. The more attractive features of retirement - time for hobbies or travel, and the opportunity to help out friends and family - have made it easier for more businesses to offer early retirement. Today, the median retirement age in the United States is in the early 60s, according to federal statistics.

Many workers, however, are either forced to change jobs or choose to do so some years before retirement. But these workers, say job experts and groups representing retired people, find themselves at an increasing disadvantage in the labor market. Often, they face financial hardship before they retire, as well as difficult economic circumstances after retirement.

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Indeed, the US Department of Labor reports, 79 percent of all retirees live on a total income of $15,000 or less a year; of that number, 29 percent live on less than $5,000 a year, while 50 percent live on $5,000 to $15,000.

Meanwhile, more than half of all US workers leave their ``career job'' (the longest job they will ever hold) before they reach age 60, according to a new study by Boston University's Center for Applied Social Science. Over a third of the workers, moreover, do so before they reach age 55.

In both situations, the Boston University study found, those who leave their primary career job early tend to work a succession of ``bridge jobs,'' sometimes for a decade, but more often for periods of several years or more, before formally ``retiring'' at age 62 (when reduced social security benefits become available), or at age 65 (when full benefits are available).

``We found that large numbers of older workers can't get as much work as they want to'' after leaving their career jobs or professions, says Peter Doeringer, an economics professor and labor market expert with Boston University, and one of the authors of the study.

For older workers, then, Mr. Doeringer says, ``there is an increase in involuntary part-time work.''

``These workers, in their 50s or 60s,'' he says, ``would rather work full time. But the full-time work is just not there for them.''

Federal authorities, for their part, have sought to bar discrimination against older workers. Thus, two years ago Congress abolished the mandatory retirement age in private employment.

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``We anticipated the trend towards earlier retirement, but, if people wanted to work, we made it possible for them to work,'' says Rochelle Jones, an aide to Rep. Claude Pepper (D) of Florida, chairman of the Subcommittee on Health and Long-term Care of the House Select Committee on Aging.

Consequently, age discrimination complaints have risen from 12,000 cases filed in 1981 to more than 21,000 in 1984; at latest count, an estimated 25,000 suits have been filed.

``Most of the complaints are not filed among the oldest workers,'' but workers in their 40s and 50s, says David Gamse, director of the worker equity department at the American Association of Retired Persons (AARP). Mr. Gamse says more workers are challenging employers when they believe they are being discriminated against, based on their age.

Ironically, the pattern suggested by the BU research is somewhat analogous to the situation of workers as they enter the labor force: a series of short jobs, often with low pay and low status, before beginning the upward career path within a company or industry. Now, the road out of the work force and into retirement may resemble the road into the work force.

Doeringer suggests several solutions, including greater job training for older workers (most companies offer training only to younger workers); expanding the ``portability'' of pensions and other benefits; earmarking public-employment jobs for older workers; and persuading companies to allow older workers to stay on in their main career jobs, but in a ``partially retired'' status that permits them to work elsewhere, too.

Doeringer is not sanguine about projections that the tight labor market expected during the rest of the century - as families have fewer children - will mean more jobs for older workers. Often, he finds, employers prefer hiring women, students, or even legal aliens, instead of older workers and, particularly, older males. The reason: Companies can offer lower pay and greater flexibility to women and younger workers.

For older workers contemplating retirement, the key is still education: ``We have a lot of wrong information circulating about retirement,'' says Gamse of the AARP. ``Far too many older workers don't adequately prepare themselves for the actual costs of retirement.''

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