Background: Due to the aging of the population and subsequent higher pressure on public finances, there is a need for employees in many European countries to extend their working lives. One way in which this can be achieved is by employees refraining from retiring early. Factors predicting early retirement have been identified in quantitative research, but little is known on why and how these factors influence early retirement. The present qualitative study investigated which non-health related factors influence early retirement, and why and how these factors influence early retirement. Methods. A qualitative study among 30 Dutch employees (60-64 years) who retired early, i.e. before the age of 65, was performed by means of face-to-face interviews. Participants were selected from the cohort Study on Transitions in Employment, Ability and Motivation (STREAM). Results: For most employees, a combination of factors played a role in the transition from work to early retirement, and the specific factors involved differed between individuals. Participants reported various factors that pushed towards early retirement ('push factors'), including organizational changes at work, conflicts at work, high work pressure, high physical job demands, and insufficient use of their skills and knowledge by others in the organization. Employees who reported such push factors towards early retirement often felt unable to find another job. Factors attracting towards early retirement ('pull factors') included the wish to do other things outside of work, enjoy life, have more flexibility, spend more time with a spouse or grandchildren, and care for others. In addition, the financial opportunity to retire early played an important role. Factors influenced early retirement via changes in the motivation, ability and opportunity to continue working or retire early. Conclusion: To support the prolongation of working life, it seems important to improve the fit between the physical and psychosocial job characteristics on the one hand, and the abilities and wishes of the employee on the other hand. Alongside improvements in the work environment that enable and motivate employees to prolong their careers, a continuous dialogue between the employer and employee on the (future) person-job fit and tailored interventions might be helpful. © 2013 Reeuwijk et al.; licensee BioMed Central Ltd.