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Retirement: If it's involuntary, take these four steps

Retirement is sometimes foisted on workers long before they want it. Here's how to adjust your retirement plan.

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Bill Harrer took early retirement from Hewlett-Packard, but because of the economic crisis changed plans and created Sunscape Construction in Rocklin. In this 2009 file photo, he stands at one of his recent projects a street scape he implemented in Lincoln, Calif.

ZUMA Press/Newscom/File

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The conventional wisdom offered to all pre-retirees these days is "wait!" Work as long as possible, defer your Social Security benefits and your 401(k) withdrawals, and keep saving money.

But that isn't always possible, is it? In fact, many people get involuntarily retired before they are ready, especially in a recession. When older folks get laid off, it can be harder for them to find another job, the illegality of age discrimination notwithstanding.

The average duration of unemployment is 34.2 weeks, according to the Labor Department. But workers over 55 were out of work for an average of 41 weeks in the most recent recession.

And while the unemployment rate for those over 55 is, at 6.9 percent, lower than the 9.5 percent overall unemployment rate, that's not because older workers are so employable.

It's because they give up. The AARP says 97 percent of older workers who are unemployed aren't even looking for a new job.In 2009, more people filed for Social Security than at any other time in the history of the program, and 72 percent of men and 74.2 percent of women who filed opted for reduced early retirement benefits.

That's mostly because they need those early benefits to get by. And that could lower their standard of living for the rest of their lives.

So, where does that leave you? You may have had a retirement "plan" that called for you to work until you were 70, but if your employer had other plans, you may find yourself retired a decade early.

Here are some things you can do about it:

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CONSIDER DEFERING SOCIAL SECURITY BENEFITS

Every year that you don't take them, you increase your monthly check by 8 percent. Where else are you earning 8 percent right now?

This strategy works especially well if you have a good amount of money built up in a tax-deferred retirement account. Living on withdrawals for a couple of years during a slow-grow, (comparatively) low-tax environment could paradoxically help your money last longer.

But grab your benefits now if you need to. You can still work around the edges, doing part-time work, and earn as much as $14,160 a year without jeopardizing your Social Security benefits.

If you get a good job later, you can always pay back the benefits you've received and restart your monthly checks at a higher level in the future.

And, with Congress talking about cutting Social Security for the sake of deficit reduction, you may want to nab all the benefits you can get while you can get them. (That's not a popular thing to say here in Washington, where policymakers swear they won't hit current retirees. But still.)

RETRAIN

Once you hit full retirement age (66 for most pre-retirees now), you can earn as much as you are able and still keep collecting your full Social Security benefit.

So, if you can't find a job now but think you want to work for many years to come, consider using this downtime to retrain for a second (or third or fourth) career; one that you've always wanted or that you think would be more suitable for you as an older worker.

Go back to school or apprentice yourself out) between the ages of 62 and 66, then come out of retirement and start working again - while you collect Social Security benefits.

Even two years of post-"retirement" fulltime work could vastly improve your long-term bottom line, your lifestyle and your disposition.

MAP YOUR OPTIONS

Most older homeowners do have home equity, so you can probably stretch your money by selling your house, downsizing, or moving to a less-expensive part of the country.

That doesn't mean you have to do it right away, it just means you can. Start thinking about lifestyle choices that could help you afford a longer retirement than you were expecting. It's worth remembering that most people don't "run out of money" in retirement. They simply cut back on their lifestyles until they can afford their new lives.

ABANDON SNOBBERY

Don't get all judgey on yourself. Think of ways to boost your earnings around the edges. That might mean babysitting, an eBay business, a garage sale or taking in a new roommate. The extra money you pick up may give you more time and cash for enjoying your hobbies or your family. You may find you like that better than the 9 to 5 grind, even if it wasn't your original plan.

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