Europe is becoming increasingly reliant on an older workforce, but unless managerial attitudes change significantly, many workers believe they will not physically be able to do their jobs beyond the age of 60.
The finding, from Britain's TUC, raises serious questions about how the workplaces of the future are going to manage the "greying" of the workforce without losing out in terms of productivity and competitiveness to emerging economies such as China and India, which have much larger - and much younger - labour pools on which to draw.
It also comes against the backdrop of yesterday's confirmation by the British government that it plans to raise the state pension age to 68 by 2050 and restore the link between earnings and the basic state pension, but only from 2012. The TUC study found that more than a third of UK workers feared they would be unfit for work by 60.
While the great majority of employees had no significant health impediments to prevent them working up to 65, or beyond if they wished, poor health was the most common reason cited why people over 50 left a job, with just half retiring early by choice, said the TUC.
In Germany, by contrast, nearly three quarters believed they would still be up to doing their jobs when they hit 60.
The Netherlands came second in the poll, followed by Sweden, Denmark and Finland.
TUC general secretary Brendan Barber said: "Britain is sitting on a 'demographic timebomb'. If we are going to enable older people to stay in work and off benefits, employers are going to have to stop pushing them out on bogus health and safety grounds and start working to keep them employed."
He pointed to the UK's new age discrimination laws that came into force two months ago as potentially helping to change hearts and minds towards older workers.
"The new age laws should be a useful tool in ensuring older workers can continue to earn a quality living but also that the UK economy benefits from the energy and expertise of a valuable section of the workforce," he added.
Poor health was the commonest reason people aged between 50 and the state pension age left a job and nearly half had suffered a health problem for at least a year, said the TUC.
Older people in the UK were much more likely to be economically inactive because of a disability than in any other EU country, it found.