Disrupt Aging: Time to Challenge the “Sell-By Date”

“It’s better to get out before you reach the sell-by date.”
-Britain’s Prince Philip, announcing his “phased retirement” at age 95

The “Energizer” Prince scales back

Ask a million Americans when a worker should retire and most are likely to suggest the traditional “sell-by date” of 65. For decades this has been the presumed time when, in the words of Prince Philip’s recent “wind-down” announcement, I think you go down-hill—physically, mentally and everything.”

The Prince’s stereotypic words are belied by his extraordinary work life. Granting that his is not the back breaking work of British coal-miners or long-serving office workers, these thoughts were first expressed when he was contemplating cutting back on his 300 events-a-year schedule at age 90. Five years later he is pulling the trigger on that plan. Thirty years after the classic retirement age of 65a full career’s worth of public contributionPrince Philip looks forward to the next stage of his remarkable life:

“I reckon I’ve done my bit, I want to enjoy myself for a bit now. With less responsibility, less rushing about, less preparation, less trying to think of something to say. “On top of that your memory’s going, I can’t remember names. Yes, I’m just sort of winding down.”

We are not all masters of our ship and captains of our fate

The other notable fact for this notable is that he, and he alone, can decide when he wants and needs to scale back. For tens of millions of those who toil, build and contribute in their daily work, this choice is not theirs. Tradition, habit andyesdeeply ingrained assumptions and bias, converge in the widely held belief that the burden of “older workers” and their failing capabilities outweighs the ability to contribute. At a mandatory or encouraged age, they are “let go.”

Prince Philip in his totality does not reflect the health, endurance and work ethic of all princes world-wide. It is equally true that no two 65-, 72- or 91-year olds have a uniform sell-by date. As we all have learned, this advisory on milk cartons is a highly random guide to when the curdling will come.

Why the random number?

How did the common retirement age of 65 become the arbiter of one’s work life? British scholar Kim Kastelle offers one account:

“The age of [70, later changed to] 65 was originally selected as the time for retirement by the “Iron Chancellor,” Otto von Bismarck of Germany, when he introduced a social security system…during the late 1800s. Somewhat cynically, Bismarck knew that the program would cost little because the average German worker never reached 65, and many of those who did lived only a few years beyond that age. When the United States finally passed a social security law in 1935 (more than 55 years after the conservative German chancellor introduced it in Germany), the average life expectancy in America was only 61.7 years.”

Sixty-five was chosen as the eligibility age for Social Security because it was then the common retirement and eligibility age in private and public systems.

 Unlocking the golden handcuffs

Regardless of its origin, surely this century old sell-by date has reached that limit itself. This outdated assumption is the anchor for widespread age discrimination and bias that damage individuals, families, companies and the larger society. Average US life expectancy is now roughly 80 years. Millions of people need and desire to work longer for reasons of income and engagement. And a slow-growing economy needs a growing, not shrinking workforce. Clearly the transformation of retirement practices embodied in Respectful Exits is a logical response.

So what stands in the way? AARP’s CEO Jo Ann Jenkins’ book, Disrupt Aging, offers a sweeping chapter-and-verse account of the dismissive way older Americans are treated and suggests some steps that could be taken in the society and the workplace to challenge the stifling bias that prevents a more inclusive future for older workers.

We concur and would suggest that the crucial step in restoring equal treatment in the workplace, a fundamental source of identity in our work-obsessed culture, is a frontal attack on traditional retirement and the powerful “sell-by date” assumption that infects all our thinking.

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