Hundreds of thousands of people now working may continue in their jobs well into their 70s. Mandatory retirements at 70 may be on the way out. In the future , employees may be able to stay at work as long as they are willing and able.
Legislation now in congressional hoppers, with considerable support, would bar requiring workers to leave jobs on the basis of age only. Backers, including President Reagan, contend that requiring employees to retire at 70, as permitted under present law, is no longer justifiable.
It is, in words of Sen. H. John Heinz III (R) of Pennsylvania, ''wasteful, arbitrary, and tragic.''
''Forced retirement is sidelining our most experienced players,'' Senator Heinz said at recent hearings conducted by a Senate subcommittee. ''It can have a devastating impact on many who are forced out of jobs,'' he added.
The US Chamber of Commerce opposes the Senate and House legislation to end mandatory retirement as ''a broad leap into the unknown with little, if any, study of the implications to the economy.''
Action on the measures appears to be at least a year away as Congress presses for adjournment on Oct. 2. However, Senator Heinz and, in the House, Rep. Claude D. Pepper (D) of Florida are optimistic that by the mid-1980s older workers will have legal protection against being forced out of jobs.
The measures now in the Senate and House, according to Mr. Pepper, would extend protection to more than 800,000 workers over the age of 70. Now 81, Pepper, chairman of the House Select Committee on Aging, regards discrimination because of age as ''vicious and obnoxious'' as bias because of race or sex.
Senator Heinz says mandatory retirement is ''bad for workers, bad for business, and bad for the economy. It is inherently contrary to the principle of job opportunity based on individual merit.''
Heinz and Pepper scoff at claims that letting older workers hold jobs longer would deprive the young, women, and members of minority groups of job opportunities. They point out that a Labor Department study made after the retirement age was lifted from 65 to 70 found ''no significant effect'' on the employment of younger people.
The Reagan administration, while supporting the elimination of age as a basis for mandatory retirement, rejected proposals that those over 70 should also be protected from discrimination in employment and promotions. Undersecretary of Labor Malcolm R. Lovell Jr. said that ''some companies make investments in new employees which must be amortized over long periods of time.'' He added, ''They don't have that time when they hire or promote people over 70.''
Mr. Lovell said that President Reagan, 71, otherwise believes ''this is the right thing to do and this is the right time to do it.''
The US Chamber of Commerce and the National Association of Manufacturers, along with other business groups, say that if the law is changed, many long-term labor contracts would have to be renegotiated (most specify retirement at 70); retirement planning would be disrupted; older workers who could normally be dismissed for cause but who are now retained for several years in anticipation of retirements would face early dismissals; and employers would lose employment flexibility.