It's easy to feel envious of those who retire early. They don't have to go to work every day like you do, and they have decades of free time in front of them. But if you asked some of those retirees what it's like, you'd learn it's not always an enviable position to be in.

Approximately half of retirees said they retired earlier than they'd expected to in the latest Employee Benefit Research Institute (EBRI) Retirement Confidence Survey. But the same survey found that roughly one-quarter of retirees were not confident they'd have enough money to last them the rest of their lives.

Worried senior woman with hands clasped in front of her.

Image source: Getty Images.

So why retire? For some, it's not a choice, and that's something young workers, optimistic about their future health and employment prospects, often overlook when planning for their own futures. Unplanned early retirement is always a risk, no matter what you do, but you can reduce this risk by planning appropriately now.

Reasons for unplanned early retirement

The EBRI survey didn't drill down into the reasons behind retirees' early retirements. Some of them might have reached their savings goal faster than they'd anticipated and felt comfortable quitting their jobs ahead of their planned retirement date. But similar studies, including a 2019 Prudential study, reveal that the reasons for early retirement aren't always that simple.

If an employer goes under or downsizes its staff, older workers could find themselves out of a job, and they might struggle to find new positions, especially if the economy is bad and few other companies are hiring. They could be forced to start withdrawing their retirement savings for survival, even if that wasn't the original plan.

Deteriorating health can also bring an abrupt end to working life, and it's not only your own health that can jeopardize your career. An elderly parent requiring care, a sick relative, or a family member who is unexpectedly disabled could all require you to take time off to care for them, possibly forcing you to quit your job altogether. It could also generate costly bills that drain your retirement savings even faster than you anticipated.

Reduce your risk of unplanned retirement

As I said, you cannot ever eliminate the risk of unplanned retirement, because some things are just beyond your control. You can reduce your risk through careful planning, though. Eating well, exercising regularly, getting adequate sleep, and finding healthy ways to relieve stress can reduce your risk of illness and chronic health issues as you age. You cannot control what others in your family do, but you can encourage them to adopt healthy behaviors along with you.

Avoid getting complacent with your career; look for opportunities to move ahead and make yourself more valuable to your employer. Consider pursuing advanced certifications or taking courses to learn new skills. This will help your company view you as an asset, and it might even open up better-paying opportunities right now.

Have a backup plan

You'll need a backup plan in case you are forced to retire early. If you are able to work part time and/or remotely, doing so should definitely be part of your plan. Think about your skill set and what kinds of jobs are available to you that might meet these criteria. Look into what your schedule would be like and what extra skills or equipment you'd need. Quitting your job won't feel as daunting if you already have a plan to secure other income.

Your backup plan could also include alternative ways of making money, like renting out an extra property or working a side hustle that lets you set your own hours. You could also try adjusting your retirement plan to remove unnecessary expenses, like canceling your travel plans and avoiding big-ticket purchases you don't really need.

Save as much as you can for retirement right now, so if you are forced to retire early, you'll have a larger nest egg to fall back on. If you approach retirement age and realize you had more money than you expected to, you can always retire early if that appeals to you or continue working if you're able to. You can keep your extra retirement savings as a cushion in case of unexpected expenses or pass it on to your heirs.

Hopefully you won't have to worry about an unplanned early retirement, but if it does happen to you, you don't want to be caught without a plan. Try the above tips to prepare yourself as best you can.