The average retirement age of members of final salary pension schemes has fallen by from 61 in 1985 to 59 last year.
Pension consultants Aon Consulting's analysis of the retirement ages of more than 100,000 members of final salary, or defined benefit, schemes found that 60 per cent of men retiring in 2003 were under 60, compared with 45 per cent in 1985.
The story was the same for women, Aon said, with 60 per cent of women retiring last year under the age of 60, compared with 55 per cent in 1985.
The figures also suggested that earlier retirement is actually accelerating for those with final salary pensions despite the many companies trying to restrict early retirement because of the growing costs. Only 45 per cent of men retired by the time they were 60 in 1985, compared with nearly 60 per cent by 2003.
Aon Consulting's Paul McGlone said: “Whilst there has been speculation that a harsher economic climate has led scheme members to delay drawing on their pension until later in life, our analysis shows that under defined benefit schemes, the economic climate has not had a major impact on retirement age.
“At present members are still drawing their pensions earlier than they were during the 1990s. But as more companies place restrictions on their defined benefit schemes, we are likely to see an increase in average retirement age.”
But the picture was much less rosy for those who were members of defined contribution schemes, where contributions tended to be lower and where the final payout depends on stock market performance.
The members of these schemes were more likely to retire later because contributions were generally lower, and people would need to work longer to build up their savings.
And he added that a corollary of the riskier nature of these scheme would be that retirement would increasingly be determined by economic cycles, rather than age, with people able to retire earlier following years of strong stock market returns or when annuity rates were good.