Perspective | Magazine

Why it’s time to mandate retirement, especially in leadership

Congress outlawed forcing people to leave their positions, but we’re living much longer, and it’s preventing new leaders from emerging.


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When Michael Dukakis became an octogenarian back in 2013, he told me during a break on my radio show: “As you know, 80 is the new 20.” We all smiled. Except it isn’t even the new 60. He knows that, having gracefully moved into teaching and turkey-carcass collection in his postgovernment life. We are living longer now, on average more than a decade longer than was projected in the 1950s, the decade I was born. And far too many leaders in corporate, political, and academic America have stayed too long, ignoring the crass but apt pronouncement of onetime gubernatorial candidate John Silber — “When you’re ripe, it’s time to go.”

Now, let’s be clear, it depends on what the definition of “ripe’’ is — and also of “go.’’ Here’s mine: There’s a certain age — let’s say 70, but we can debate the precise number — or length of service (same debate there ) when you are ripe and it is time. That doesn’t mean being placed on an iceberg and pushed out to sea, but using those extra years to go on to something else.

The reasons for mandatory retirement of those at the top are powerful.


It’s good for the institution, because thinking gets old. Congressman Seth Moulton has urged Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi to go. “Most successful companies have succession plans and room for new innovative leaders to come up behind them. That’s even more necessary for unsuccessful companies. Congress and, in particular, the Democratic Party have been historically unsuccessful,” he told me on the phone. Moulton, who says he’s not a mandatory retirement advocate, insists stale ideas, not Pelosi’s long tenure nor age (77), prompted his comment.

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But age does matter, because cognitive speed in adults declines as birthdays increase. Yet look at Washington: Two early front-runners for the Democratic presidential nomination in 2020, Bernie Sanders and Joe Biden, would be 79 and 78, respectively, when taking office. In the oldest Senate ever, nine members are over 80. It’s time to go, folks! Call me ageist, but I’m not alone — Senator Fritz Hollings once commented on fellow senator Strom Thurmond, then 98: “Someone has said the best nursing home is the US Senate.” Someone was right.

I’m not saying these people will no longer be of value — but focus on the cure for cancer, Joe. Build an even bigger movement, Bernie.

Think like Margaret Marshall, former chief justice of the state’s Supreme Judicial Court. She left her position before her state-mandated retirement age of 70 to care for her ailing husband, the journalist Anthony Lewis. Marshall thinks stepping aside is important for “institutional renewal” and supports an age-related cutoff, not one based on competence. “A case-by-case determination is hard,” she tells me. “It’s much easier and more fair to choose an age, so all know, then just move to another chapter.” In her case, she’s a senior counsel working on community and diversity matters and mentoring at Choate Hall & Stewart. I asked her whether the rule should apply even if, say, 84-year-old Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg would have to go. “Yes,” she replied, without missing a beat.

Marshall also says mandatory retirement should be the rule in academia, which she knows a bit about as former Harvard general counsel and, until 2016, a Yale trustee. The next generation of scholars needs its chance. “If young people know no matter how hard they work, there’s no opportunity, it sends a terrible message.”


And that’s the most important reason for a mandated end point — it would break the logjam in high places. As a state senator, George Bachrach opposed term limits. No more. At age 65, he called it quits as the head of the Environmental League of Massachusetts, even though things were going well. But he believed his continued presence “was stifling the next generation of leaders, with unintended consequences that the organization was not as creative as it should be.” He’s still working on climate issues, but also, he says, “taking long naps and drinking heavily.” He was joking — I think.

Regardless, people need to spread their wings before they’re too tired. New Hampshire’s medical examiner, Dr. Thomas Andrew, flew the coop at 61, after 20 years of service. He said on my radio show that after a certain point “you need that fresh pair of eyes, fresh vision. Otherwise, it’s same old, same old, and you cut corners and you end up in a bad place.” Andrew is now in a good place — studying for the ministry in Ohio.

Letting the locked-out in (I mean except in talk-show hosting, of course!) was a common thread through what Moulton, Marshall, Bachrach, and Andrew had to say. And where are more doors closed than in corporate Massachusetts? Last year’s Boston Club census of the state’s 100 biggest public businesses uncovered 10 “zero-zeroes’’ — no women on the board, none in executive offices. And the recent Globe series on racism in Boston found only 1 in 100 directors of the state’s largest firms is black. Think forcing the retirement of some gray-hairs might make it easier for women and minorities to move on up?

So whether by policy, statute (Congress banned mandatory retirement in 1986, but could revisit it), or cultural change, let’s acknowledge that King Lear got it right almost 500 years before Silber, with the line “Ripeness is all.” Shakespeare, like the good doctor, was speaking of being prepared for inevitable death. I’d urge being prepared for an inevitable end to Act 1. Then, get ready, because there are more and more second acts in American life.

Jim Braude hosts Greater Boston and co-hosts Boston Public Radio on WGBH. Follow him on Twitter @jimbraude. Send comments to Follow us on Twitter @bostonglobemag.