The first time I attended a school supply industry convention, I was struck by how different it was from the other industries to which I had been exposed. Much of the difference, it seemed to me, could be traced back to the fact that most of the businesses were privately owned.
Seeing as you work in the industry yourself, there is a good chance that you work for a family-owned company. If not, you surely do business with some, and I don’t need to tell you that there are advantages and disadvantages to such arrangements. They do share one feature, however, that you may not have considered.
They have the tendency to disregard customary standards in terms of age-appropriate employment. In other words, they fill positions with people who would be considered too young or too old in corporate America.
Is that a bad thing? Well, it can be, yes. Seasoned employees may resent taking orders from teenagers, for example, or middle managers may not strive for advancement because their path is blocked by some old coot who will only leave feet first.
That’s assuming, of course, that older family members want to work at the company, which is not always the case. Sometimes older individuals don’t want to work there or anywhere else.
Look at what’s going on in France, for example. Since January, huge, often violent crowds have taken to the streets of Paris to protest President Emanuel Macron’s plan to raise the retirement age from 62 to 64. Apparently, a good many French citizens feel entitled to retire young with a full pension, in spite of the fact that people are living decades longer than they used to and the system is rapidly running out of cash.
In case you’re wondering, the nation with the lowest retirement age is Sri Lanka, at 55, and there are several others in the upper 50s. It’s also worth noting that to get the pension in France at age 62, a person must work for 43 years and make the scheduled contributions. At 67, everyone gets it without conditions.
The U.S., of course, complicates the whole process as much as possible, having created a sliding scale based on the age at which benefits start and what contributions were made at what time. To make matters more confusing, the whole deal is different depending on what year you were born. For most people, full retirement is somewhere around 66, but you get a higher monthly payout if you wait until 70 to take it, adding an element of gambling to the whole endeavor.
In America, though, we have as many problems caused by people who refuse to retire as we do with people who want to retire too soon. Many years ago, it was typical for large companies to have mandatory retirement dates, most often at age 65, but those rules are mostly gone now, along with the defined benefit pensions that went along with them.
Nowadays, most companies, large and small, allow workers to stay on the job indefinitely, and it is not uncommon to see people in their 70s and even 80s soldiering on. For the most part I think that’s a good thing, so long as people find the work rewarding and are able to fulfill their responsibilities. There are clearly places, however, where some limitations need to be established.
Take the U.S. Senate, for instance. Right now, the institution is trying to figure out what to do about Senator Diane Feinstein of California, 89, who has been suffering from diminished capacity for several years. She often forgets the names of her own staff and colleagues, falls asleep at meetings and loses the thread of conversations.
For a couple of months this spring, the senator was out with shingles, missing dozens of votes and closely divided committee meetings. Other lawmakers can pressure her to resign, but they cannot force her to do so, and a number of those lawmakers are no spring chickens themselves.
In a way, the situation at the Supreme Court is worse, because appointments are for life and voters have no say in the matter. Theoretically, a justice can be impeached and removed for misconduct, but he or she would have to do something a lot more egregious than growing old for that to be even remotely possible.
Then there’s the executive branch. Irrespective of politics, we can’t talk about age in the workplace without acknowledging the elephant in the room. We currently have an 80-year-old individual entrusted with the most powerful and demanding job on earth. If that seems a little precarious, hold on, it could get more so. At the moment, it appears that the presidential election of 2024 could represent a choice between a 78-year-old and an 82-year-old, both of whom have sometimes struggled to put together a coherent sentence. If we’re okay with that, we can’t very well argue that someone like, say, a high school principal, is past his expiration date at 65. What about an airline pilot? A brain surgeon?
I’ll grant you that those are particularly demanding professions, but lives can also depend on teachers, nurses, police officers, bus drivers, firefighters, ministers, judges, construction workers, farmers and on and on. How old is too old for any of them, and who gets to determine it?
Some fields do have age requirements, but for most it’s a matter of “knowing when to quit.” That’s a heavily laden phrase to me, calling to mind images of some of my favorite athletes who simply stayed too long at the dance. It’s sad to remember Willie Mays stumbling in the outfield, or Muhammed Ali absorbing punches he would have deftly dodged in his youth.
Being a Buffalo Bills fan, I was never too fond of Tom Brady, but nevertheless I was relieved for his sake when he finally gave it up for good. It’s not healthy for anybody to get body-slammed by a 300-pound lineman, but for someone his age it seemed almost suicidal.
By now you must be convinced that I am some sort of raving ageist who wants to herd the elderly onto a lifeboat and give it a good shove. I can assure you that is not true.
As I wrote this column I turned 70 years old, so I am officially one of those old coots who is taking up space, blocking others from advancement and clinging to 20th century technology. I am also a major stockholder, so it is virtually impossible to get rid of me.
In light of all that, I decided to retire from the day-to-day business of the company I co-founded with the late Tom Williams 40 years ago. I am proud of the business we created, and confident that I am leaving it in capable hands.
I will still keep an office here for the foreseeable future, and hope to do some occasional work for the company. Among the tasks I would like to retain is the writing of this column, which I have contributed on a continuous basis since 1984.
Unless, that is, you think I’m too old.
You can e-mail Kevin at firstname.lastname@example.org.