More and more people are jumping at the chance to take early retirement , but David Walker warns if you're not financially prepared it isn't the right move
IF WORK is the new religion, how come the number of heretics is growing?

A survey from Income Data Services this week says that an increasing number of workers are getting out early, leaving their jobs before they have accumulated their full pension entitlement. Yet, since last May, the Chancellor and Prime Minister have preached the gospel of work - the cornerstone of their plans for welfare is work, more of it, especially for those on low or no incomes.

Actuaries are rubbing their hands because the age at which women officially retire is being raised to 65. Meanwhile, public service auditors are anxiously insisting that local authorities stop so many teachers, firemen and police officers leaving work early. What is going on?

One actuary confirms that if you can get an employer to contribute to your pension, old age is going to be more comfortable, even if you go before the statutory retirement age. Occupational schemes work - for those employed by the same employer for long enough.

Until recently, the point applied equally to the public as to the private sector. In one of the "good" schemes (for teachers, civil servants, police and fire) the early retirement option could start to look attractive to employees in their mid-to-late forties. If you can augment the scheme pension with some disability award - a favourite for police and fire officers - so much the better, although this gravy train may now be slowing down.

For those who have chopped and changed jobs, the outlook is bleaker, unless they have had periods of high income and have saved large proportions of it.

The upshot now and for decades into the next century is two nations among the elderly. The other trend has been evident since the early Eighties, when manufacturing and mining were shaken out: Britain has an army - 2 million strong - mainly men, aged from their mid-fifties to their mid- sixties who are both physically and mentally capable of full-time work but who are more or less retired.

Some chose to go, others were fired, most were "encouraged" by employers who, for reasons of cost or flexibility, appear to prefer younger people. They are geographically concentrated in London, the inner city and mining/industrial areas.

Socially and politically, they constitute an invisible group - but one, surely, a country anxious to maximise its human resources can ill afford to treat as labour market residue.