Research Cycle

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Vol 14|No 1|October |2017

How old is too old?

by Jamie McKenzie (about author)

As longevity increases, it makes sense to ask, "How old is too old?"
Social Security states, "According to data we compiled:

A man reaching age 65 today can expect to live, on average,
until age 84.3.
A woman turning age 65 today can expect to live, on average,
until age 86.6.
And those are just averages. About one out of every four 65-year-olds today will live past age 90, and one out of 10 will live past age 95."
There are many organizations and governments that require retirement at a certain age. Often, they choose the number 65 as the time when workers must leave. They usually employ the same number to block any graying new hires.

When I was in my 20s looking ahead to the age 65, the number seemed perfectly reasonable to me. That was 50 years ago. Back then retirement was often portrayed as the reward for a long life of hard work - an escape from labor. You could spend your days drinking beer and playing golf. Heaven!

Now that I have passed the age of 65, and my generation is living on the average 20 years longer than our parents, the number 65 seems arbitrary, out-of-date and discriminatory. In addition, some of us have found work extremely pleasing and see no reason to stop. The idea of drinking beer and playing golf day after day has lost its appeal.

The author in 1971

Mandatory retirement was defended in the past with the argument that people’s performance will decline at a certain age, and they should get out of the way, making room for younger workers.

With many people living an extra 20 years in good health, it is time for the society to question the number 65 and the policy of setting mandatory retirement. This is, after all, a journal about questioning.

A related issue is the silent menace of age discrimination that eliminates some job candidates before they are interviewed or considered, even in those professions where age and experience might prove to be an advantage. There are companies that prefer hiring the young over the old.

Some examples

In each of the following cases, what age, if any, would you think reasonable for mandatory retirement? If you were hiring to fill a vacancy, would you set an age ceiling for any of these jobs?

1. Warehouse job involving heavy lifting of packages often more than 50 pounds in weight.

( ) 45 ( ) 55 ( ) 60 ( ) 65 ( ) 70 ( ) 75 ( ) None if person can do the job

2. Copywriting for advertising agency, free lance.

( ) 45 ( ) 55 ( ) 60 ( ) 65 ( ) 70 ( ) 75 ( ) None if person can do the job

3. Teaching English to high school students.

( ) 45 ( ) 55 ( ) 60 ( ) 65 ( ) 70 ( ) 75 ( ) None if person can do the job

4. Selling real estate.

( ) 45 ( ) 55 ( ) 60 ( ) 65 ( ) 70 ( ) 75 ( ) None if person can do the job

5. Bartending.

( ) 45 ( ) 55 ( ) 60 ( ) 65 ( ) 70 ( ) 75 ( ) None if person can do the job

6. President of the USA.

( ) 45 ( ) 55 ( ) 60 ( ) 65 ( ) 70 ( ) 75 ( ) None if person can do the job

7. Journalist.

( ) 45 ( ) 55 ( ) 60 ( ) 65 ( ) 70 ( ) 75 ( ) None if person can do the job

8. Bus driver.

( ) 45 ( ) 55 ( ) 60 ( ) 65 ( ) 70 ( ) 75 ( ) None if person can do the job

9. Pilot.

( ) 45 ( ) 55 ( ) 60 ( ) 65 ( ) 70 ( ) 75 ( ) None if person can do the job

10. Attorney or judge.

( ) 45 ( ) 55 ( ) 60 ( ) 65 ( ) 70 ( ) 75 ( ) None if person can do the job

11. Surgeon.

( ) 45 ( ) 55 ( ) 60 ( ) 65 ( ) 70 ( ) 75 ( ) None if person can do the job

12. Family doctor.

( ) 45 ( ) 55 ( ) 60 ( ) 65 ( ) 70 ( ) 75 ( ) None if person can do the job


To be fair, we should set criteria to make such decisions. Some jobs require more physical strength than others, and some people find their strength declining with age.

Other jobs require a sharp mind combined with great experience and talent. These traits may endure in some cases well past 65 into the eighties and nineties.

A New York Times 2016 article reports than the number of elders remaining in the work force past 65 has been increasing dramatically in recent years. The trend is more prevalent with the well educated.
A recent Pew Research Center analysis of federal employment data lays out the numbers. In May 2000, 12.8 percent of those older than 65 held a job. By this May, the number had climbed substantially, to 18.8 percent.

Older workers are more apt than others to work in management and sales, the Pew report found, and less likely to work in construction or food preparation and service.

Fawning on youth

During my career as an educational leader, I often encountered an attitude that fawned on youth and yawned when it came to elders. While young teachers were often spirited and enthusiastic, full of energy and drive, many of the teachers I knew who were approaching "retirement age" were far superior when it came to actual teaching. Good teachers build a repertoire of skills, tricks, strategies and techniques to promote learning. Some of this comes from experience - trial-and-error. Enthusiasm is fine, but maturity and experience trump excitement, especially when the elder is full or energy and passion.

You could extend this argument to a number of professions. Younger is not always better. And sometimes, it is not even desirable.

Lip Service is no service at all

Almost all organizations post a clear statement promising not to discriminate when considering and selecting new employees.

Take this one from IBM, for example:
IBM equal opportunity statement

Jobs at IBM
Statement overview

IBM is committed to creating a diverse environment and is proud to be an equal opportunity employer. All qualified applicants will receive consideration for employment without regard to race, color, religion, gender, gender identity or expression, sexual orientation, national origin, genetics, disability, age, or veteran status.
Unfortunately, some groups make these statements without beieving or honoring them.

I remember sitting on a school district search committee looking for a school principal when the young assistant superintendent dismissed out of hand a candidate retiring from the principalship in a different state because he was too old.

I pointed out at the time that his comments were both illegal and wrong-minded, but the man's folder was shoved to the side without any serious consideration.

This same scene probably occurs frequently across many organizations without anyone blowing the whistle or challenging the thinking, but it is difficult to prove if it is your folder that was shoved to the side. Statements about equal opportunity and non-discrimination are all well and good, but paying them lip service is not only illegal; it might also rob the organization of talented employees who deserve consideration.

What can you do?

If baby boomers will live 20 years longer than their parents, how long will the so-called Millennials live? They may want to look ahead and support policies that allow long careers for those who want them.

With Social Security facing deficits trying to support so many retired citizens, even young people need to see the value of allowing people to stay in the work force as long as they are healthy and capable. Perhaps they will be sitting on a search committee that dismisses an older candidate without consideration and will speak up against the discrimination. In a few decades, after all, it might be their turn for dismissal.

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