Retirement Age: Ageism in Action?

A Canadian physician William Osler once said that a man’s best work was done before he was forty years old, and that by age sixty, he should retire. He called the ages between twenty five and forty the “15 golden years of plenty”. Workers between ages forty and sixty were tolerable because they were “merely uncreative”. But after age sixty the average worker was useless and should be put out to pasture. Centuries ago, the German Emperor, William I in 1881, introduced the proposal for retirement saying “…those who are disabled from work by age and invalidity have a well-grounded claim to care from the state.” The tragedy is that irrespective of the progress in physical and mental well-being, individuals continue to believe that there ought to be a defined age for when people must leave the workforce. While countries like US and UK have abolished a mandatory retirement age, for many, 65 continues to be a magic number and if generous, 70. When recently I stumbled upon a debate on what the revised retirement age should be, I couldn’t help but wonder if the existence of one was necessary. As we continue to question age old beliefs and strongly held biases, maybe it is time to resurface those related to age too. No longer is one considered too young for a job, but too old is most definitely a consideration.

There are three main arguments that usually emerge in favor of a retirement age.

Argument #1

The biggest assumption is that those who are younger have the mental dexterity to be able to bring in new ideas, exert greater effort and manage higher levels of stress, thus contributing to the organization more favorably than someone who has crossed the age of 65. Those in favor of a retirement age will quote examples of sexagenarians being difficult to work with, struggling to keep up with change and all in all being less productive than the younger counterparts.

In jobs that require physical strength, yes there is a case to be made in favor of fitness to perform job responsibilities. In fact, the slowing down of assembly lines, excessive sick days and failing physical health led the government to create policies that made retirement attractive. However, times have changed. I personally know innumerable retired individuals who have found a successful stint as independent consultants, coaches and trainers. Not to say that these are the only viable options for the retired workforce but that the evidence of cognitive decline impacting work eligibility is swiftly falling.

And what happened to the robust performance management systems organizations claim to have? These systems are built on the very concept of meritocracy and letting the best man or woman win. How is it that this system suddenly fails when it comes face to face with those nearing their retirement age? If performance is a concern, what makes it difficult to have an honest performance conversation with the individual and working with the same company policies that apply to everyone else? Let’s be honest, it can’t be the discomfort of the conversation.  It is as uncomfortable with someone who has spent 10 years in the organization as it is with someone who has 30. Is it the potential lawsuit? If done right, this is likely an invalid fear.

Argument #2

This is likely the only real argument in the favor of a retirement age. Those older are more costly to the organization both in terms of salary and health benefits. Thus a simple cost benefit analysis demands that there be a retirement age. Why add friction to a process that addresses this?

Organizations regularly engage in activities that defy regular cost benefit analysis and purposely add friction. At first sight, every action that enables an organization be carbon neutral and more considerate to the environment is costlier as compared to benefits and so is engaging is disagreements with the government. Yet, there must be a benefit tucked away which encourages organizations to do so. Is it public opinion, brand image or a different intangible? Why not check if abolishing a retirement age does the same?

What is the real cost if employees choose to leverage the retirement benefits at 75 instead of 65? Or worse – never retire unless fired? Did we ever invest in vetting the cost benefit analysis or are we letting intuition drive us? Maybe now is the chance to engage in one.

Argument #3

This argument I find a tad bit ludicrous. It states that a retirement age allows for the younger workforce to be gainfully employed. The retirement plans are often far more favorable to unemployment plans and the mandatory retirement clause allows the workforce to flow in favor of the country’s progress.

I find it hard to believe that we do not have enough jobs for both the old and young. Yet, there may be some truth in that depending on demographics around the world. The solution to this might actually be encouraging individuals to retire vs attacking their freedom of choice. Or even better – generating more jobs.

There is a fourth humorous argument that states people need to be told when to take a break. Just as employees have accumulated vacation days, they also likely do not know when it is time to retire. A retirement age is thus a service to the individual telling them that it is time to enter the next and likely last stage of their life. I am not going to qualify this argument with a response but will roll my eyes instead.

Removing a mandatory retirement age forces the organization to recognize the real reason it is asking someone to leave and engage in an uncomfortable yet honest conversation with its employees. As organizations enter an era of testing hypothesis especially those relating to bias, ageism is an important aspect. While abolishing a retirement age may look like a one way door, I do believe it is time to test this hypothesis too. We may just be proved wrong and pleasantly so.

P.S: Everyone on my team at work disagrees with me. I can’t be the only one with this point of view. If you agree, would you let me know?


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