Some people spend half their working careers praying and planning for retirement. But as the magic time approaches, many suddenly discover solid reasons they shouldn't, can't and won't retire on the original target date.

What happens when retirement stops being a distant dream and becomes a potential nightmare? What about plans to see the world, take up painting or the piano or join the world senior boogie board surfing circuit?

The reasons people don't retire are increasingly important in a government that is getting older, and smaller, even as the administration presses agencies to find vacancies and promotions for more Hispanics and women.

The age of the average federal employee--now almost 47 years--has been on the rise in recent years. Meanwhile, the government has eliminated 300,000 jobs in six years and plans additional reductions by using more contract employees and paying retirement-age workers buyouts to retire.

Most retirement-age federal workers are under the Civil Service Retirement System. They can retire--on about 55 percent of final salary--at age 55 with 30 years' service. Unlike private-sector pensions, typically frozen for life, CSRS benefits are indexed to inflation.

Government data show that the typical federal employee retires at age 61, compared with an average age of 62 in the private sector.

Thousands of middle-management federal workers have been paid buyouts (worth an average of $24,000 before deductions) in the last six years. The administration is seeking congressional approval (which it won't get this year) to offer buyouts on a government-wide scale. At present, only 10 departments and agencies can offer buyouts.

As government shrinks, opportunities for promotions--outside of the computer field--are getting increasingly scarce. Many younger and mid-career federal workers are studying their older, high-grade colleagues for signs they are about to retire.

The question many mid-career federal workers are asking is: What's keeping the old-timers (relatively speaking) on the job?

The answer, probably, is lots of reasons.

A reader who works for the Department of Energy offers an analysis of what keeps people on the job, based on his longtime observations of an older colleague. This is what he says:

"As a 28-year-old fed, I've heard lots of interesting stories about people in government who are 'positively' going to retire next year. But 10 years later, they are still on board. I'd like to hear some stories from employees at other agencies. But I'll tell you a classic story at my agency. It is about a GS-15 'linger-longer,' who swore he'd be out at age 55, with 30 years' service, so he could go to Florida and open a bait and tackle shop. That was 10 years ago!

"His reasons:

* "After talking up retirement for over a year, at age 55, he confessed he had to stay two more years to pay off his son's college loans.

* "At 57, he said he would have to stay at least two more years to pay off his house.

* "At 59, he said he had to stay just one more year to pay for his son's graduate school.

* "At 60, he said he needed one more year because he finally had to get a new car, and fix his wife's car.

* "At 61, he said he needed one more year to make needed home repairs.

* "At 62, he decided to stay for just one more year to help his son make a down payment on a new house.

* "At 63, he asserted he would have to stay at least two more years because that's when his wife could go out after 30 years at her federal job, and they could retire together.

* "Now, at age 65, he states he's forced to stay one more year to up his [high three-year average salary, which determines the amount he will get in retirement] in light of the upcoming year 2000 pay raise."

Contracting Out

The Clinton administration has made it clear that the government of the future will include lots more part-timers, temporary workers and private-sector contract workers. The contract workers can bid to provide services but won't become permanent fixtures on the payroll or earn retirement benefits from Uncle Sam.

The new emphasis on contracting out work has put the administration--and presumably the Gore for President Campaign--on a collision course with the American Federation of Government Employees.

AFGE, the largest nonpostal federal union, plans a Labor Day launch of a massive anti-contractor campaign. It will present data showing that contractors (according to the union) often cost more than federal workers, deliver inferior services and lack the loyalty needed in many programs.

Mike Causey's e-mail address is causeym@washpost.com