Early retirement plans generated by recession attract many takers

For Tom Clancy, a former automobile executive, early retirement means holding three jobs.

Mr. Clancy (not his real name) retired in February 1981 from one of the big-three automakers at age 55. His company was trying to pare down its work force ''to replace the high-priced guys like me with less expensive younger guys ,'' he says.

So the firm urged managers and executives who were 55 and had worked for it at least 10 years to retire early. It gave them an entitlement to bridge their pension until they could receive social security payments.

In this recession more and more companies are offering ''open window'' or ''accelerated attrition'' policies in which employees are encouraged to retire before they reach age 65.

Mr. Clancy and his wife have converted their hobby of collecting antiques into a business. Mr. Clancy also restores old cars, of which he has 28. And he and his son plan to operate a series of Mrs. Winner's Chicken restaurants across northern Georgia. They will open their first franchise in March, with nine more to follow over the next six years.

''When I get up, I just decide if I want to be dusty or greasy or smelling like chicken,'' he says.

For companies, the most common types of open-window arrangements eliminate the reduction in an employee's pension plan that normally occurs if he or she opts to retire early. In addition, companies often provide some temporary annuity to cover the retiree until he or she begins receiving social security payments, or an entitlement that can be spread out over several years or taken immediately as a lump sum to be used as the retiree likes.

Companies implement early retirement policies because they are a relatively painless way to pare down a work force in lean times. Employees think they are a good deal because they allow the opportunity to dabble in different activities.

Caterpillar Tractor Company offered its management employees over 58 (recently the age was lowered to 56) $400 a month for a maximum of four years if they retired early. Since 1979 the firm has reduced its work force by 23,000 (26 percent) worldwide and about 18,500 in the United States.

Two types of companies tend to offer early retirement plans, says Robin Holloway, a vice-president at Towers, Perrin, Forster & Crosby, a compensation consulting firm. First, there are those directly affected by the economy, such as heavy-manufacturing companies. Mr. Holloway estimates over half of the nation's manufacturing firms are looking into or now offer such plans. Then there are those companies which have grown flabby over the years. The recession allows them a chance to slim down through an early retirement plan.

But it's not clear that a company saves money by offering early retirement, Mr. Holloway says. ''You could argue that it actually loses money, because it could have terminated the employees. The savings involve intangibles - stripping out dead wood, clearing the way for younger employees, and making the rest of the work force more happy and efficient. In making the plan voluntary, the company avoids the bad press, low morale, and especially the lawsuits about age discrimination.''

The lawsuit consideration is not incidental. Between 1979 and 1981, the number of age-discrimination charges filed annually with the federal government nearly tripled, from 5,374 to 15,311.

Open-window arrangements have proven popular. For example, when Sears, Roebuck & Co. offered its severance pay plan, it expected 33 percent of those eligible to accept. Instead, 60 percent signed up. ''I have yet to find a company that hasn't received more acceptances than they expected,'' Mr. Holloway says.

In 1981 the financially troubled Philadelphia Bulletin encouraged early retirement among its employees. Some of them took the company up on the offer. Those who didn't found themselves out of work six months later when the newspaper folded.

Say you are 62 and retired. What do you do with all those hours during the day?

If you are Chuck Stevens, you become a consultant. Mr. Stevens (not his real name) was an engineer for a leading tractor manufacturer for 23 years. During that time he became an expert on large tires, such as those used on earth-moving vehicles. He also established worldwide contacts in the industry. So when he was offered incentives last year to retire early, he decided to go into consultanting.

For Mr. Stevens, one of the best things about his new ''career'' is the lack of pressure. His pension is generous enough to allow a comfortable life for he and his wife. ''I'm not in it for the money. I'm in it because I like tackling problems and keeping up with former associates.''

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