THE MANDATORY retirement legislation currently winding its easy way through Congress involves far more difficult questions than one would expect, judging by the overwhelming bi-partisan support the bill has received in both Houses. In an ideal society, age would be no bar to the continued employment of individuals who find fulfillment in their work. But while raising the age at which employers may force their workers to retire constitutes an admirable, long-range goal for American society, such a move, if unaccompanied by major economic reforms, could have many adverse social effects.
A strong current of political expediency runs below the surface of Congress's push for civil rights for the aged. Legislators could attempt to use the new forced retirement law to eliminate pressure for the reform of the Social Security system, Later retirements would help curtail the drain on Social Security as well as ease the burden on private sector pension funds.
In terms of electoral politics, the simple fact is that the old vote on a more regular basis than youths first entering the job market, and far more regularly than the increasingly jobless minorities and other underprivileged groups of the inner cities.
It is far from clear what impact raising the retirement age would have on the structure of the labor market and its disenfranchised unemployed. Proponents of the bill claim that it would have minimal impact on the economy because most individuals currently affected by mandatory retirement laws would continue to retire at age 65 anyway. This contention appears dubious and in need of far more statistical confirmation. There is no doubt, however, that one segment of society would continue to work longer if mandatory retirement ages were raised: studies consistently show that those engaged in elite occupations--executives, professors, engineers--choose to work well into their 70s when given the chance. These are the occupations in which minorities and women are most seriously underrepresented. Passage of the new laws seriously hamper attempts to meet the goals of affirmative action programs.
These are difficult issues, which members of Congress, motivated by politics have failed as usual to consider. With the country's population rapidly becoming comparatively older and healthier, the legitimacy of mandatory retirement rules is an issue which the federal government must face. But the current bill will do nothing more than shift the burden of a nowin tradeoff onto the segments of our society that are already receiving the hardest knocks in the U.S. labor market. Ideally, individuals would be able to work as long as they are productive, just as they should be able to retire at a reasonable age, secure in the knowledge that society will provide for them after a lifetime of labor. But an increase in retirement ages can only be of overall social benefit if it is introduced as but one aspect of a major structural reform of the U.S. economy.
POLITICAL circumstances being what they are, it is probably unrealistic to expect that Congressional passage of the new mandatory retirement laws can be avoided. Such a bill could potentially have its most serious impact on the academic job market and higher education. Thus, Harvard must take a firm stand in favor of proposed amendments to the bill that would exempt tenured college faculty from the 70-year minimum mandatory retirement age. University-level academics are among those jobholders who can be expected to continue to work if the unamended bill is approved. And, as Graduate School Dean Edward L. Keenan '57 says, professors "tend to be obscenely long-lived."
If the mandatory retirement law is passed without a provision exempting tenured faculty, universities would lose their capacities to renew their faculties with younger academics bringing new perspectives and study concerns to their fields.
A generation of younger academics, already caught in the demographic crunch which has left too few college students and too many Ph.D.s, would find their job prospects during the coming decade reduced to practically zero. Minorities and women, who currently make up a minute percentage of all tenured professors, would continue to find their rise through the ranks of academia effectively blocked.
At Harvard, review channels are open to the professor who wants to continue to teach beyond the normal mandatory retirement. With the approval of the departmental and full faculty, as well as President Bok, classicist John Finley 25 continued to teach into his 70s. All universities and colleges should establish similar review mechanisms to provide for exceptional cases such as this.
Meanwhile, Harvard, which to date has taken no official position on the retirement legislation, must at least come out strongly in support of exempting tenured faculty from the provisions of this questionable bill.