Companies desperate to shrink their white-collar work force may be offering you a golden opportunity to clean out your desk and leave. They tuck the gold into an incentive bonus for early retirement.

A recent study of 10 such early-retirement plans, by the management consulting firm of Towers, Perrin, Forster and Crosby, found it not uncommon for more then half the eligible employes to take the company up on its offer.

A company's regular early-retirement benefits "often do not make retirement attractive or affordable," TPF&C reports. To encourage an exodus, management has to sweeten the pot.

Some companies tempt you with a larger pension than you would normally get when leaving before age 65. Some buy out older employes with cash payments, sometimes amounting to more than a year's worth of salary.

Some supplement a retiree's pension, until he or she is old enough to collect Social Security benefits. A few even subsidize medical coverage to age 65.

To give employes a push, the golden door is usually not open for very long. You might be given two to 12 months to make up your mind. If you let that time elapse and apply for early-retirement at a later date, you will not receive the special benefits. You are also running the risk that your job might be eliminated before you reach normal retirement age.

On its face, an early-retirement program is nothing more than an invitation to leave. But the carrot may be swung from a stick. Your company might be shrinking its operations and laying off workers. In many cases, it is perfectly clear to older employes that if they don't go quietly, they'll be pushed.

Companies bend over backwards to indicate the voluntary nature of early-retirement bonus plans. Employes who feel they're been forced to leave may bring an age-discrimination suit. Right now, such lawsuits are being filed at a record pace, especially in the hard-hit manufacturing industry.

But it's not discrimination if you're fired because your job or your unit is abolished. And it's hard to prove discrimination just because a younger worker gets your job. Companies that single out workers and invite them to enter early retirement may be more vulnerable to lawsuits. But voluntary bonus retirement plans are not, in themselves, evidence of discrimination.

Early-retirement bonuses catch employes at a vulnerable moment, especially in declining industries. It is better to take the bonus than to be let go. On the other hand, the retirement bonus doesn't begin to replace the salary you lose by not working to age 65. At many companies, the bonus plan also leaves you with a permanently reduced pension.

Ironically, an early-retirement bonus works the best for employes who need it the least: those with higher incomes, substantial savings or an independent source of income. Today's high real rates of interest provide retirees with good income from their savings, while the promise of disinflation suggests that it will take longer than it used to for the purchasing power of a fixed pension to be cut in half.

Early retirement is also a good solution for employes with health problems. If it looks as if you're going to have to leave the company anyway because of illness, you might as well get a bonus for going.

Employes with a working spouse, or with a line on another job, might also be attracted by the bonus plan.

But people with lower incomes and small savings will probably find that they can't afford retirement, even if it's greased with some extra cash.

You might test the employment waters during the months the company gives you to decide about the offer. But as any laid-off older worker will tell you, age discrimination is alive and well in company hiring practices today.

According to the official figures, workers aged 55 and up take 20 percent longer to find a job than is average for the population as a whole. But that figure underestimates the difficulties. Large numbers of older workers simply eliminate themselves from the labor market, and from the unemployment count, because of persistent failure to find work.