Despite inflation, despite the erosion of savings, despite a common perception that all retired people are broke, the trend toward early retirement remains strong. Many retirees under 65 apparently think that given their pensions, indexed Social Security, bank accounts and maybe a paid-for house, they'll be all right, even in a high-inflation economy.

This is interesting with regard to what it says about the financial security of older Americans, which in many cases is better than is commonly believed. (Some retirees are indeed in trouble, but many others aren't.)

This is also ominous for working people, mostly younger, who pay the Social Security tax. They'll be finding cost-of-living increases for a geometrically exploding number of retirees, many of them under 65, who may be quitting their jobs by choice rather than by necessity.

Robert Jud, of the consulting firm William M. Mercer, thinks that many of today's early retirees are living in a dream world. "They don't really grasp the demographic and economic realities of their situation," he says."The gradualism of the problem has made it hard for people to recognize it." As a result, he concludes, "supporting oldr workers may be the biggest economic problem we'll face in the next few decades."

A study by the consulting firm Hewitt Associates shows that salaried employes who continue to work until age 65 do have a tendency to stay on longer. But this is only a small portion of the work force. Most workers are not salaried and most retire befor 65, according to Dr. Malcolm Morrison of the Labor Department's Employment Standards Administration.

Various polls continue to show that the majority of workers hope to retire between age 60 and 65. Some want to work part-time after retirement but it's not known how many actually do. "Many of them moonlight in a number of different areas, and it doesn't show up in the statistics," Jud says. They are, in short, part of the underground economy -- officially retired, working occasionally for cash and not reporting their income.

According to Merrell M. Clark, executive vice president of the Academy for Educational Development, 70 percent of men 65 and over had jobs back in 1900. This dropped to 50 percent when Social Security was introoduced in 1935. Now only 20 percent of this group is working -- despite the fact that their general health is better, and life expectancy longer than it was back in 1900.

All during the inflationary 1970s, men continued to retire earlier and earlier. In 1978, that trend was interrupted a tiny bit and some people speculated that the age of early retirement was coming to an end.

But 1979 and 1980 statistics reverted to the previous trend. In the first quarter of 1980, only 19.8 percent of males 65 and over were in the labor force, compared with 26.8 percent in 1970. (The portion of 65 and older in the labor force has hovered between 8 and 10 percent for three decades). An 18-month study by the Center on Work and Aging, carried on through mid-1978, found that the law raising the mandatory retirement age in private employment to 70 from 65 did not seem to affect people's plans. Most still hoped to retire between age 61 and 65.

"Men were the most likely to persist in their expectations of early retirement," the center's Dr. Sara Rix told my associae, Dedra Hauser. "Women were more likely to consider later retirement."

On average, women are apt to have started work later than men or to have been paid less, so the opportunity to work longer gives them a shot at a better pension. "Also," says Rix, "many women have already experienced retirement of a sort when their children left home, and they know that it isn't always what it's cracked up to be."

Early retirement stems not only from choice. Many companies dead-end employes over 50 and actively induce them to leave.Unionized workers tend to retire early, in part because their jobs are not rewarding.

Most specialists in the field, however, have a gut feeling that this trend cannot continue, because of today's harsh economic climate. "The figures don't show it yet," says Dr. Harold Shepard, President Carter's counselor on aging, "but I would say that people are trying to stay in the labor market longer."