Few U.S. employers understand that time may be about to snatch their best employees.

Executives at Merrill Lynch & Company Inc., New York, made that argument here at a recent meeting for employers who happen to be Merrill Lynch clients.

The executives presented results of one company-sponsored survey of 1,000 U.S. employers with 100 or more employees and a second survey of 5,111 U.S. adults ages 25 to 70.

The oldest baby boomers are now 60, and they will reach the current normal retirement age in just 5 years.

But results of the Merrill Lynch survey suggest that the boomers could leave the workforce earlier than members of the previous generation did.

The baby boomers surveyed said they plan to give up work entirely at an average age of about 69.8, which is 1.8 years younger than the average projected retirement age that working participants in the 60-70 age group suggested.

About 58% of the participants in the 60-70 age group who plan to keep working said they hope to end up in a different line of work. But the boomers are even more eager to change gears: 65% of the boomers surveyed said they hope to find new lines of work.

Although some employers may think of older workers as individuals who are desperate to get and keep jobs, only 25% of the older Merrill Lynch survey participants who had looked for work after turning 65 had trouble finding jobs. They rest said they had no difficulty finding jobs they wanted.

Meanwhile, only 7% of the employers surveyed cited “retaining older workers” as their most serious human resources issue, while 65% cited the rising cost of benefit programs and 47% retaining labor or recruiting and training younger workers.

About 31% of the employers surveyed admitted they had not given the looming retirement of the boomers much thought.

“Boomer retirement is a critical problem, but it is not yet urgent for most companies,” says Cynthia Hayes, a retirement services executive at Merrill Lynch.

But Hayes warned that seemingly low-priority problems can turn out to be more important than employers expect.