The idea of working after retirement sounds like an oxymoron, doesn't it? After all, isn't retirement all about not working?

For a combination of reasons, many of today's workers are planning to retire later than workers of previous generations. And once they do retire from their current employment, more are saying they'd like to continue working for pay at least part-time.

Some are realizing that their lack of sufficient savings means they'll have to work. According to the Employee Benefit Research Institute's latest Retirement Confidence Survey, 52% of people in the workforce who are 55 or older have less than $50,000 in savings and investments (excluding the value of their home). That's the highest percentage in the 23 years of the survey.

Of course, others who intend to work in their later years don't necessarily need the money; rather, they see retirement as a time to explore different vocational interests.

But how well do the retirement-related desires of today's workers mesh with the actual experiences of today's retirees?

The expectation/reality disconnect

According to the EBRI, 36% of today's workers expect to retire sometime later than age 65. That's up from 11% in 1991. More specifically, 26% of today's workers say they'll retire at age 70 or later.

That may happen, but it doesn't square with what actually has happened in the past. The EBRI says just 14% of today's retirees waited until after age 65 to retire. Only 6% waited until age 70. In fact, a sizeable number of retired people (47%) say they stopped working earlier than they had planned to. While a portion of those people (32%) did so because they could afford to, 55% retired earlier than expected "for a negative reason, such as a health issue or disability."

Another study from Merrill Lynch found similar results: 57% of current retirees retired earlier than they planned to. While about a fourth of those said they retired early because their savings enabled them to, a third said they had to retire early because of health problems and another fourth because they lost a job. Taken together, these surveys indicate roughly 25%-33% of total current retirees were forced to stop working earlier than they had planned to.

The EBRI also found that 69% of today's workers intend to work for pay after retirement. The Merrill Lynch study came to a nearly identical conclusion, with 71% of today's workers age 45 or older saying "they would ideally like to include some work in their retirement years." A little over half of those were motivated by financial need. The other half wanted the "stimulation and satisfaction" they believe will come from their work. Encouraged by the possibility of a long life, they see their later years as an opportunity to explore an entirely different line of work.

Here, too, the expectations of today's workers are at odds with the actual experiences of today's retirees. According to the EBRI, just 25% of today's retirees have worked for pay during retirement. Health issues play a role in keeping older people from working, but so do the challenges of finding paid work opportunities. Whereas nearly three-quarters of today's workers are somewhat or very confident they'll be able to find employment during retirement, just one-quarter of current retirees are equally confident.

For retirees, health is the big unknown factor. According to the Merrill Lynch study, "health problems can cause a devastating double hit on retirement preparation, both increasing unexpected expenses and cutting hoped-for income."

What to do

If you plan to retire later than the traditional retirement age and/or work at least part-time during your retirement, taking two steps now may help.

First, do all you can to strengthen your skill set. Consider college classes, workplace training opportunities, or new books in your field that can help you keep your skills current (or add new ones). While guaranteed employment is a thing of the distant past, your chances of remaining attractive to employers will be enhanced by staying at the top of your vocational game. Second, if you have an entrepreneurial dream you'd like to pursue in your later years, getting started now isn't a bad idea. Your current steady paycheck gives you the freedom to see if a hobby or area of interest really can generate income.

Overall, the best approach to retirement planning is to prepare emotionally and vocationally to retire from your current job at a later age than you may want or expect, while preparing financially to retire at an earlier age. By doing so, you will be covered either way.