mandatory retirement?

When I began this blog, I wasn’t yet eligible for either Social Security or Medicare. But I’ve passed the first milestone. At 62, I am now eligible to apply for Social Security at a reduced rate. I plan to keep working while I still enjoy it. But the question of when to retire is always on my mind.

The November 2010 issue of AARP Bulletin included a short article about the fact that the State Department’s mandatory retirement age of 65 doesn’t apply to the Secretary of State or ambassadors. It also mentioned that Dr. Elizabeth Colton, who turned 65 in August of this year, filed a lawsuit in September 2009 calling the mandatory retirement age unconstitutional.

So I did a little digging. I knew that the mandatory retirement age for Foreign Service Officers is 65. And that the mandatory retirement age for Diplomatic Security agents is 57. And that there is no mandatory retirement age for Civil Service employees. What I found interesting is that nearly every mention of mandatory retirement ages referred to physical and mental requirements and the resulting stress on those to whom it applied – those in law enforcement, pilots and air traffic controllers, but no reference to any reason mandatory retirement should apply to diplomats. Just that it does.

The mandatory retirement age for Foreign Service employees was set at 60 by the Foreign Service Act of 1946, long before the passage in 1967 of the Age Discrimination in Employment Act (ADEA). Thirteen years later, the “new” Foreign Service Act of 1980, changed the mandatory retirement age to 65, restoring it to what it had been from 1924 until 1946. It would seem that thought was given to the fact that it was illegal to discriminate against anyone over the age of 40 in the workplace in the United States, but still it was acceptable to consider Foreign Service employment exempt from ADEA. And so it has stood since that time.

But Elizabeth Colton decided to challenge that exemption when an assignment she had been offered and had accepted at age 63 was withdrawn when someone realized she would turn 65 eight months before the end of that assignment. Her suit claimed discrimination based on age.

Another blogger, Diplopundit, highlighted the contrast between the Department’s treatment of Dr. Colton when she entered the State Department in 2000, at which time she was one of four new entrants featured in State Magazine, with the current circumstance. The article cited the wealth of experience Colton brought to State – as a journalist, university professor of international relations, Emmy-award winning television producer, magazine editor – which many supporters now feel State is too willing to toss aside. See thoughts from Walter Russell Mead of American Interest Online.

The timing of AARP’s short piece about Dr. Colton in the November issue is ironic, perhaps, in that the judge dismissed her case two months earlier, in September.

Another change in the FSA of 1980 was bringing the Foreign Service under Social Security. Before then, members of the Foreign Service were exempt from Social Security.

Should there be a mandatory retirement age for diplomats? Is 65 the right age? Should it be raised? In 1980, 65 meant eligibility for Medicare as well as full entitlement to Social Security. In the meantime, the age at which a person is eligible to receive full Social Security benefits has gone up, leaving diplomats forced to retire at 65 without the right to obtain full Social Security benefits. Isn’t that enough reason to raise the mandatory retirement age? As debate continues around proposing the age for full Social Security benefits be raised to 70, shouldn’t the mandatory retirement age for diplomats be raised to match?

No age is the right retirement age for every person. Some people want to retire at as young an age as possible. Others want to work for as long as possible. Too often I think mandatory limits are put in place to avoid the need to consider the individual differences. I don’t want to have to wait until I’m 70 to retire, but I accept that others both want to work until an older age and have the capacity to do so well.

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