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tom keane

Could the new retirement age be never?

Roderick L. Ireland.

Pat Greenhouse/Globe staff/file 2010

Roderick L. Ireland.

Should she be elected president in 2016, Hillary Clinton will start her new job at about the same age as Roderick Ireland is being forced to leave his.

Ireland is chief justice of the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court. Named to the court in 1997 by Governor William Weld, he was the first African-American to hold the post; in 2010 he became chief justice. He enjoys a solid reputation as a “practical moderate” whose rulings are “measured and balanced,” observes Suffolk County District Attorney Dan Conley.

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So what crime, what outrageous scandal has erupted to push Ireland off the bench?

He got old.

Ireland turns 70 later this year. In Massachusetts, it doesn’t matter how good a judge you are, it doesn’t matter how effective. Three score and ten and you’re gone.

Mandatory retirement rules used to be common, covering about 40 percent of America’s work force. They were gradually dismantled during the 1980s although, as Ireland’s case shows, not completely. Public safety workers and those with high-skilled jobs can still be terminated when they celebrate the wrong birthday. Moreover, a growing number of voices, worried about jobs for the young, have been arguing we should bring back mandatory retirement. And legal or not, older workers face enormous pressure to retire, some subtle, some much more overt (such as getting laid off because one earns too much). The fact is, we still harbor bias against the old.

Part of that bias is grounded in the belief that older folks need to be shuffled off to make room for the young. That claim suffers from the same flaws as do all “lump of labor” canards. There is no fixed amount of work available that somehow has to be allocated between young and old. Rather, to the extent that any worker of any age is productive, that person creates more wealth than he or she consumes. Older workers don’t take jobs from the young. In truth, they ultimately create more jobs.

In Massachusetts, it doesn’t matter how good a judge you are, it doesn’t matter how effective. Three score and ten and you’re gone.

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Then, too, our youth-obsessed culture is uncomfortable with age, even as what it means to be “old” has changed significantly. Back in the mid-1930s, when Social Security was first created, being in your 60s was seen as elderly. In 1940, for instance, only 6.8 percent of the population was age 65 or older, and those who hit 65 could expect to live, on average, for just another 13 to 15 years (the lower number is for men; the higher for women). But today, those numbers have changed dramatically — 13.7 percent of the population is 65 or older, and those who reach that age can expect to live another 19 to 21 years. Sixty is the new 50, 70 the new 60, and so on. And those longer lives aren’t sicker lives. To the contrary. Older Americans are healthier than ever, according to a number of US and overseas reports that find serious illness usually compressed into just the last few months of life. Indeed, one key attribute age does have is wisdom, a virtue born out of experience. Employers take note: While smart is good, wise is better.

All of which suggests we might want to re-think the whole idea of retirement. Granted, should people choose to stop working, by all means let them. But the assumption that retirement should inevitably happen — that it’s a natural next step of life — deserves challenge. A significant body of research suggests that the gold watch and goodbye handshake presage not some spectacular new chapter of life, but rather melancholy, illness, and boredom. One recent study, for example, found the risk of clinical depression among the retired increased by 40 percent. That’s not surprising. Most of us like to complain about our jobs. Yet work allows us to be productive and useful, to feel as if we are making a meaningful contribution to society. Retirement — especially when forced or urged — seems a declaration that someone is essentially useless.

I have no worry about Justice Ireland’s future. Massachusetts may not want him, but I expect that there will be plenty of law firms eager to have him on board. And at age 70, Hillary Clinton may be working from the Oval Office. Yet millions of others near their ages will be pushed into retirement. That’s wrong. Wrinkles or not, if people want to work, we should welcome them. It’s good for them. It’s good for all of us.

Tom Keane can be reached at tomkeane@tomkeane.com.
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