THREE years ago, when President Reagan signed legislation ending mandatory retirement at age 70, advocates for older people were jubilant. As the bill's chief sponsor, Rep. Claude Pepper of Florida, explained, the new law meant that ``for millions of elderly Americans, the blessings of a 70th birthday will not become a death sentence against their working lives.'' But no sooner had later retirement become legally sanctioned than a counter-trend became evident: a move toward early retirement - sometimes very early retirement. Week after week, late-1980s headlines have announced corporate plans to ``downsize,'' ``streamline,'' and ``restructure'' companies by offering sweetened pensions to older, more highly paid workers.
For cost-conscious corporations - among them IBM, which earlier this month offered its third round of early-retirement incentives in as many years - these benefits packages offer a chance to trim payrolls and cut staff.
And for employees, the financial incentives sometimes offer a mid-life opportunity to change jobs, begin new careers, or simply enjoy leisure time.
Yet this kind of corporate housecleaning, however benign it may appear to employees and outsiders, has its darker side. Too often the initial euphoria of a hefty severance check and a bigger pension is quickly tempered by the sobering realities of a mid-life job hunt. Workers in their 50s who have taken the money and run may discover they are too young to retire but too old to find a comparable position and salary.
So challenging is the search in certain professions that Jim White, a volunteer with Senior Employment Resources, a nonprofit group in Annandale, Va., has advised people who have a choice, ``Don't leave your job unless they carry you out on a stretcher.''
Age discrimination in the workplace is illegal. No employer in the United States, for instance, would dare use the kind of help-wanted ads that appear in the Times of London. One British firm looking for a secretary recently specified ``Age: 21-27.'' A law office seeking a commercial lawyer placed an ad for a ``young solicitor (aged 25-30).'' And an advertising agency needing an executive assistant stated, ``If you are between 25 and 34 call us.''
Even so, who can say for sure that ``golden handshakes'' and ``golden parachutes'' - corporate euphemisms for early-retirement incentives - are not sometimes ``golden shoves'' in disguise?
Corporate leaders, most of whom are themselves in their 50s and 60s, pay lip service to maturity. Yet in their eagerness to encourage maturity to leave, they are losing experience and judgment that will be costly, sometimes impossible, to replace.
The value of maturity became evident in July when a 58-year-old United Air Lines captain with 37 years of experience guided a crippled DC-10 to an emergency landing in Sioux City, Iowa, saving 184 passengers. By contrast, the 29-year-old co-pilot of a USAir plane that crashed in the East River at New York's LaGuardia Airport recently was making his first takeoff in a 737.
Already the departure of long-term workers is beginning to haunt at least one employer. Central Connecticut State University in New Britain, Conn., has lost nearly 8 percent of its faculty and 11 percent of its support staff as the result of a generous early-retirement bonus plan designed to trim the ranks of state employees.
As a result, one-fourth of the people who operated the university's heating system - including older workers most familiar with the aging system - have left. So has the woman who for years single-handedly entered students' grades into a computer at the end of each term. So has the worker who cleaned the pool, which consequently had to be closed.
A study released last week by researchers at the University of Connecticut and Lehigh University in Pennsylvania found that a majority of workers who accepted an early-retirement offer from their employers were happy with their decisions. Those who were unhappy felt they had been forced out by a boss who no longer wanted them.
In searching for a golden mean between the golden handshake and the golden shove, the studies of early retirement can often be confusing. But this only suggests the obvious - that human beings, proceeding from infancy according to their individual timetables, should be allowed the dignity of saying ``when.''