Only the ‘great and the good’, like Mary Robinson and Jimmy Carter, are considered useful in their later years. Everyone else is made obsolete at an age when they may have another 20 years or more to live, writes Caroline O’Doherty
A RATHER lovely document came to hand this week, full of evocative photographs and stirring statements of noble ideals.
Its cover depicted a globe held aloft by a variety of hands — young, old, black, white. Cliched, yes, but that’s forgivable, given its origins.
It was the annual report of The Elders, a sort of active retirement club for former heads of state and other one-time holders of high public office.
They travel the world, championing the causes of peace, justice, equality, and environmental protection, popping up at international conferences to use whatever influence, experience, and connections they have to encourage a shared search for solutions.
Our own former President, Mary Robinson, is among the 14 members, as are Kofi Annan, former secretary general of the United Nations; Archbishop Desmond Tutu, anti-apartheid campaigner; Marrti Ahtisaari, the former Finnish president, who oversaw the decommissioning of weapons in Northern Ireland, and Jimmy Carter, the 39th president of the United States.
Nelson Mandela, the original Elder, is still counted as a member, although, sadly, his retirement is permanent.
Just two of the club are aged in their sixties. Most are in their late seventies to mid-eighties. Carter, the eldest Elder, is 92, and the average age is 78.
That’s 13 years beyond the scrapheap onto which the average Irish worker, and in particular the public sector employee, is thrown when their working life is declared over.
There are people who can’t wait to reach this particular milestone, who say ‘if this is a scrapheap, then call me a rusty bean can and toss me right on top, where I can enjoy the view’.
There are others who see the scrapheap as a precursor to the recycling centre and look forward to reinventing themselves as a born-again golfing prodigy or extreme baker, or travelling the world championing the causes of sun, fun, culture, and cosmetic surgery.
But there are others who do not want to, or cannot afford to, retire and for whom there is no sensible reason why they should be made to.
Historically, it was an act of kindness to force people to clock out at 65. That was before they remained students until their mid-20s and before Omega 3 supplements, automation, and Safe Pass training courses spared them the worst wear and tear the workplace could inflict on mind and body.
But now, if you make it to 65, you have an average life expectancy of 85, which is a long time to be classified occupationally obsolete.
Several people have tried to challenge the mandatory retirement age, through legal channels here, but they have failed, on the grounds that it is a justifiable policy to push people out the door to create promotional opportunities for younger colleagues.
That places age discrimination above ability, which is not such a noble ideal.
As John Brady told the Oireachtas Justice Committee, when it discussed Sinn Fein’s draft bill to abolish the mandatory retirement age last week, it used to be argued that women would take men’s jobs if you let them into the workplace. Thankfully, thinking — and the workplace — evolved.
Well, it did up to a point. Sinn Fein’s bill isn’t being opposed, but lack of opposition does not necessarily equate to support. Any whiff of cost being associated with the proposed change and the bill will be given concrete shoes and left to see how little distance it can travel before the next general election.
There may well be financial implications. It costs more to pay a senior staff member their salary than their pension. But if they’re worth the pay, then aren’t they worth keeping in the post?
If they aren’t worth it, then why have they been allowed stay in the job up to retirement age?
Here lies the nub of a problem that plagues workplaces. It’s not so much that people lose their ability or drive for the job as they age, it’s that, often, they never had much in the first place.
The annual Comptroller and Auditor General’s report is riddled with examples of lazy, sloppy, ill-judged and ultimately expensive workplace behaviour and decision-making in the public sector.
The various reports into the gardai reveal shockingly unprofessional practices. The inquiries into the Grace scandal, Aras Attracta, and other health facilities show up individuals who seem to think standards should be set by how they’re feeling about life on any given day.
And yet management seem more preoccupied with whether some of their staff are known as grandma on their days off than whether they’re known as gobdaw on their days on.
If they’re 65, but a bit weak-bladdered and not up to date on the latest Kardashian love tiff, never mind that they’re a whizz at their job — show them the door.
If they’re 35, don’t grasp the complexities of their role, don’t care to, have an allergy to responsibility and consider pride in work a mug’s game, never mind — you’ll only have to carry them for another 30 years.
Managing people and their talents, or lack of them, is a tremendous skill and one that sadly seems absent from many workplaces — in particular in the public sector.
Instead of mandatory retirement of people who are a loss to the workforce, and at a loss when forced to go, we should have mandatory demotion, retraining, upskilling and redeployment of people who are the wrong fit or who display the wrong attitude in their job.
We don’t all have the luxury that The Elders enjoy, which is of being considered not old, but wise, not expired, but experienced. But as long as management obsess more about their employees’ continence than their competence, even the luxury of choice about when to end our working lives is denied us.
© Irish Examiner Ltd. All rights reserved