A recent survey found that employees over 50 are scared to admit it for fear their age will count against them, and two in five believe their age will bar them from promotion or pay rises. Kate Cooper, of the Institute of Leadership and Management (ILM)said, ‘Highly skilled and talented staff members have less opportunity to progress as they get older. They are victims of out-dated ageist stereotypes. As a result, despite wanting to climb the career ladder, many older managers are resigned to the fact they may miss out on promotion.’
Ageism exists even among learned academics who could be expected to know better. Professor Paul Ewart, age 69, head of Atomic and Laser Physics successfully challenged Oxford University when he was compulsorily retired at the age of 69. The university said that it was to encourage more diversity, but Professor Ewart’s analysis showed that not be the case. ‘I’m a scientist, ‘he said, “I wanted to see the data and whether the data justified that conclusion.’ The Tribunal agreed that it didn’t.
Professor Ewart hopes to work out a policy for retirement with the University that ‘is lawful and allows people the dignity and opportunity to choose when to retire. I don’t want a solution that helps just me. It has to help others as well.’
Acting ‘lawfully’ is important. In 2010 the Equality Act became law. It lists what are called “protected Characteristics” which are the categories that are protected from discrimination, harassment and victimisation. Among the protected categories is ‘age’, but this has been challenged on the basis that fairness between generations is a legitimate aim for employers, signalled in a case brought by a law firm to the Supreme Court in 2012.
Professor Ewart challenges the logic of this argument. ‘Everyone who is in a job is keeping someone else out of a job,’ he said, ‘a younger person … has many more opportunities to get a job somewhere else. If you lose your job at 67 it’s very hard to get another one.’
It’s clear that maximising the experience and wisdom of older academics pays off. Last year Professor John Goodenough, 97, at the University of Texas in Austin won the Noble prize in chemistry – 32 years after being forced to retire from Oxford.
What are the views of Christian leaders? In 2016 a survey of evangelical leaders showed that 71% believed there should not be a compulsory retirement age. “Age is not necessarily good predictor of effectiveness,” said Leith Anderson, president of the National Association of Evangelicals (NAE). “There are 75 year olds who have active and growing ministries, and 40 year olds whose ministries are struggling and lacking fruit.”
George Wood, general superintendent of Assemblies of God, said, “My most productive years have been since I turned 65. Ministry should not be assessed by biological chronology, but where the individual is still learning, growing and fruitful.”
What do the Scriptures say about retirement?
The only retirement mentioned in the Bible is for the Levites, who retired at 50, but who were encouraged to stay on and help. Lifting the tabernacle poles and equipment must have been heavy work! Moses was 80 when God called him to lead the Israelites out of Egypt, and Miriam, Aaron’s sister, was in her late 90s when she led them in their first worship service after coming out of Egypt. Joshua was 80 when he led them into Canaan. When he led the battle of Jericho he was 101.
God has a high view of older people. He instructed the Israelites to stand in the presence of older people, putting His seal on the instruction ‘I am the Lord,’ Leviticus 19:32. He refers to Himself as ‘the ancient of days’. The expression is used in reference to God in Daniel 7:9,13,22 and is not intended to suggest the existence of God from eternity, according to the International Standard Bible Encyclopedia. It was the venerable appearance of old age that was uppermost in the writer's mind. "What Daniel sees is not the eternal God Himself, but an aged man, in whose dignified and impressive form God reveals Himself (compare Ezekiel 1:26).