OUR PRESENT PRACTICE of retiring able-bodied workers at a predetermined age, regardless of their desire to continue working, is a bankrupt morally as it appears to be financially. We must find a way to allow them to be productive as long as they are able and willing. Otherwise we will face a monster of our own making: a large class of dependent people whose care becomes an intolerable burden on the younger workers who have to pay the bills.

We are enforce a harsh definition of career that requires a person to work full-time and to increase his responsibilities until that inevitable day when he stops suddenly and completely. A more natural pattern would enable a person to reach the apex of his career and then slow down gradually, assuming fewer responsibilities and spending shorter hours, until he is no longer physically able to work.

This concept is used effectively in limited fields. College faculty members become "emeritus" at a certain age, relinquishing administrative duties but continuing teaching and research on a reduced schedule. Retired judges frequently continue to hear cases on a limited basis. Retired diplomats are sometimes called upon to handle explosive situations or to act as consultants.

The crisis caused by our expanding older population could be alleviated by making the concept of "emeritus" universal. The status could begin at the conclusion of the "active career" phase and continue until "retirement." There would be a decline in administrative duties and responsibilities, a shorter work schedule, but a continuation of the use of lifetime skills.

The emeritus state could begin at 65 or some other age (preferably, the decision would be made jointly by worker and employer) and continue until the worker dies, becomes physically unable to work or decides he no longer wishes to work.

This proposal carries with it a host of problems. In a time of continuously high unemployment it is not unrealistic to fear that eliminating mandatory retirement will take jobs away from younger persons.

But it is possible to devise emeritus jobs that are not competitive with career positions. Certainly, worthwhile activities not now being done by career workers can be performed within any professions or skill group.

I would prpose the implementation of a system of certifying the non-competitive nature of emeritus jobs. The task of certifying would fall to the labor union, professional association or other organization that represented active career people in their particular job unit.

Such a certification system works effectively in the American Federation of Musicians. For many years the union has had to face the problem of competing with recorded music. The union recognized early that there were organizations - church groups, hospitals and others - that were simply unable to pay union scale to have live music. In effort to discourage such groups from hiring non-union or below scale players, or to make do with a phonograph, the union established the Music Performance Trust Fund which gets its income from a direct tax on working musicians' earnings. An organization that wants to have live music, but cannot pay union scale, can apply to the union local. If the union is satisfied that in fact there is no money to pay for live music, the union will hire musicans and pay them from the Music Performance Trust Fund.

WITH PRIVATE and public pension plans, Social Security and Keogh-type plans for self-employed persons, most Americans have some income when they retire. The difficulty with almost all of these arrangements is that either they do not pay unless one has ceased productive employmet, or they will inflict heavy penalties on persons who continue to earn income.

In planning the emeritus stage, we should utilize the present web of private and public pension programs, but revise them to encourage, rather than discourage, continued work activity.

If we make these changes, it should be possible to maintain a system of emeritus workers who would be paid little, if anything, in addition to the pension payments to which they would be entitled if they retired.

Emeritus work will essentially be public service. Sometimes these jobs will be performed within the structure of the person's active career employment; sometimes they will be specifically designed positions sponsored by his skill group organization for the explicit purpose of benefiting the larger public. In the latter case, it may be possible and desirable to make some minimal amount of public funds available to supplement pension incomes.

I would favor revising our minimum wage laws so that persons working in certified non-competitive emeritus positions would have their pension benefits included in any determination of their hourly wage rate, even though the pension income would be non-taxable.

To test the concept's feasibility, I developed a prototype experimental program for the Washington Council of Lawyers, an association of attorneys concerned with public interest issues. Under this program, "emeritus lawyers" can volunteer their services to community legal service organizations on a part-time basis. A student in my poverty law course at George Washington Unversity Law School, a retired Justice Department attorney, became the model for the plan. As a member of my class, he had gone to work for Ayuda, an organization on Columbia Road that serves Washington's Spanish-speaking community. Now, more than three years later, he is still there, working three days a week, helping a tiny and overworked paid legal staff cope with the many consumer problems that plague poor people who have difficulties with the English language.

Two participants in the program are now spending two days a week each, representing battered children in D.C. Superior Court. The services are performed under the auspices of the Friends of Superior Court, a non-profit service organization. Another participant is working with a local union pension fund to establish a hearing procedure for union members who believe they have not received benefits to which they are entitled. Some emeritus attorneys are working with Legal Counsel for the Elderly, an American Association of Retired Persons program which provides legal assistance to older persons concerned about their benefits and other problems.

The benefit to the Washington community of the services of these attorneys is substantial. Yet no government funding is required to maintain the program.

If other professional associations, labor unions and corporations were to establish emeritus career programs for their own members throughout the country, the impact on the quality of life in our country would be profound.

Our older citizens have the time, they have the skills and experience and they have the will. By providing a structure to which they can relate professionally, and through which they can continue to be productive, contributing members of society, we will be guaranteeing the dignity of old age - ours as well as theirs.