TERRY PRONE: In this day and age, nobody should be forced to retire from work at 65

This wellmeaning legacy of the Victorian era hasn’t washed out of the employment system, writes Terry Prone

Barb Blume, Illinois, turned her hobby of knitting into a second career at a yarn store after retiring from nursing.

HE was in the RAF, was Owen Finley Maclaren, as a test pilot. Also an engineer, he designed the Spitfire undercarriage, which allowed it to cope better with crosswinds. Then, he retired, as is expected of a man who’s had a good career in the pay of the government and whose children have produced offspring of their own. That’s when the golden years start and it’s time to relax and bore everybody with your war stories.

In the early 1960s, Maclaren’s only daughter crossed the Atlantic with his grandchild and he watched as she struggled to get a smallish pram onto a London bus. Had to be a better way, he thought. Had to be a better product.

So down he sat at the drawing board and dreamed up what became the Maclaren buggy. It was lightweight and foldable. It was made of tubular aluminium, the first time the material had been used in a civilian product. It looked like someone had crossed a deckchair with a clutch of walking sticks, was incredibly light, and was a breakthrough in the transporting of small children.

Maclaren patented it globally and set up a major business, which has churned out millions of the buggies over the decades.

Novelist Deirdre Purcell passed on her Maclaren buggy to me when my son was born, and I passed it on to someone else when he grew out of it.

That was the extra benefit of the buggy. It was durable. Millions of parents gained from the creative genius and structural skills of a man who had retired.

One has to wonder, however, at the loss of Maclaren’s creative genius and structural skills to his original employer. People are questioning the logic of forcible retirement at the age of 65. Now, much of this protest about mandatory retirement at 65 in the public service is because you don’t qualify for a state pension for another year.

That pension gap is an annoying anomaly, and no more than that. What everybody should be out on the streets protesting about is the egregious ageism of the State as an employer.

The State hires someone, evaluates their performance over time, promotes them, finds them perfectly functional up to a particular birthday, and then they become dysfunctional, unacceptable, unproductive and too bloody old to be paid good money. One day, you’re a valued employee, the next day, you’re forced to retire. No choices. Gone.

This happens, too, in the private sector, particularly in those large organisations that cosset their employees in life and in retirement. The only sure way to escape it is to be an entrepreneur, or part of an entrepreneurial family. Owning your own company creates many pressures for the shareholder, but it removes the possibility of being forced to retire at 65. (Or sixty, if you are a garda, but we’ll come to them later.)

Like many constraining, pointless rules and laws, this one started off with the best of intentions, probably back in the Industrial Revolution, when spinners, miners, loomworkers, and other indentured servants of various manufacturing or mining processes were so exhausted by decades of gruelling, physical demands that they were lucky if they reached their mid-60s. They deserved a rest before the grim reaper came looking for them.

This legacy of the Victorian era hasn’t washed out of the employment system. Undernourished, ageing labourers, more than a century ago, are very different to a public sector accountant of today heading into their 60s.

Being physically unable to continue to work, which might have been the case for the majority in the past, is a rarity in the present, and, when it happens, tends to be attributable to an illness or to lifestyle choices, rather than to age.

None of that matters. Like it or not, you’re out the door because of age. Nobody looks at you as an individual, alive with experience, expertise, and potential contribution. Nope. They look at you as a commodity that has hit its sell -by-date. The system decides you are useless, based on age.

Just as the system, at various times and in various places, decided you were useless if you were a woman. Or a married woman. Or Jewish. Or gay.

The law now steps in to preclude discrimination based on any of those factors, not just in the public service, but right across the employment scene. But the law seems to say nothing about age discrimination.

It’s seen as perfectly acceptable to denigrate and impoverish individuals solely based on the date on which they were born.

This form of discrimination is particularly damaging to women who become mothers. Many women who give birth to a few children effectively lose up to 10 years on the career fast-track. Those same women, statistically, are likely to have longer lives than their male counterparts. Which means they have more years to offer at the latter end of their career — and they’re prevented from offering those years.

And then you have the guards, the pinnacle of employment ageism. In An Garda Siochana, they don’t wait to can you at 65. The minute you hit 60, you’re a civilian. In the last few weeks, the newspapers have carried stories of very senior gardaí who are nudging up to retirement age winning major overseas posts.

One of them is off to the Cayman Islands, the other heading for Portugal. This would indicate that other police forces A) value the Irish guys, and B) don’t enforce pointless age discrimination. It might be worth the State’s while to ask if either man actually wanted to leave their garda post to go to warmer climes.

Maybe they did. Maybe they’d rather have stayed put. Since one senior guard already — and unsuccessfully — brought a legal challenge to his enforced retirement, it can be assumed that a fair number of long-serving men and women would like a choice as to whether to retire or continue. If they’re fit for the job, why is their corporate and operational memory being burned away like a wart?

The paradox is that our lawmakers are properly free of such age discrimination. Nobody told Michael Noonan it was time for him to enjoy his golden years someplace else, and so he’s enjoying those years as an effective Minister for Finance in wonderfully exciting times at the age of 73.

It baffles me that people are prepared to march in protest over being charged less than two hundred quid for water, but nobody’s marching in protest at an entire generation having their salary taken from them, along with their right to be part of the workplace.

© Irish Examiner Ltd. All rights reserved

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