Today, employment and civil rights laws protect employees against discrimination--including age. Few probably realize, however, that states used to have laws specifically discriminating against the elderly. In New York, teachers were subject to mandatory retirement laws that capped the age a teacher could work. Thankfully, mandatory retirement laws do not exist anymore, but current pension systems do subtly encourage older teachers to retire.
According to a 1917 New York state law, teachers had to retire from the classroom upon turning 70 years:
“Each and every contributor who has attained or shall attain the age of seventy years shall be retired by the retirement board for service forthwith or at the end of the school term in which said age of seventy years is attained.” (New York State Laws, Chapter 18, Title 1, Section K, subdivision 2, 1917).
The law was mirrored in school policy. A 1921 high school handbook for New York City public schools teacher states: “Compulsory service retirement takes place at the age of 70, or at the end of the term in which the age of 70 is attained.” Regardless of the teacher’s performance or individual desire, a teacher in New York was forced to leave the classroom the year she reached age 70.
Even up until the 1960s and 1970s, mandatory retirement was a prevalent practice amongst private and public pension plans. A 1963 Department of Labor survey found that 67 percent of pension plans included some type of compulsory retirement. The original passage of the Age Discrimination in Employment Act of 1967 (ADEA) protected employees against age discrimination but limited protection to workers between the ages of 40 and 65 and allowed employer benefit plans to include mandatory age limits. A 1972 survey conducted by the Social Security Administration found that 58 percent of private and public pension plans still included some type of compulsory retirement. Congress later repealed the upper-age limit and only a few professions with intense physical requirements presently retain mandatory retirement (i.e.: police, fire fighters, air traffic controllers).
Today, the normal retirement age (the age when a teacher can begin receiving an unreduced pension benefit) in New York and New York City is age 63. Although mandatory retirement no longer exists, the current pension system has found other ways to subtly push older teachers out of the classroom. That is, by reducing pension wealth. The current pension structure “pushes” teachers out of the system by decreasing pension wealth for every additional year a teacher chooses to stay in the classroom beyond normal retirement. Once a teacher reaches the normal retirement age, every year she keeps teaching is a year she can’t receive her pension. Teachers nearing normal retirement consistently respond to this disincentive and leave the classroom because of the pension system.
Some may argue that these mechanisms are necessary to ensure an effective teaching workforce. Yet, the current policies are not tied to performance and may go against the desire of the individual teacher or school. Work disincentives are a blunt instrument based on age, not effectiveness. Policymakers trying to improve the quality of the teaching pool should consider using measures actually indicative of performance rather than age.