BOSTON — Until this week, a group of older commercial-airline pilots held out hope that the friendly skies would become friendlier to their presence in the cockpit.
The pilots wanted the Supreme Court to overturn a Federal Aviation Administration rule that forces pilots to retire at age 60.
But on Monday the court, without comment, turned down their appeal. That leaves their profession one of the few in which government-sanctioned age discrimination is still legal. Air-traffic controllers, police officers, and firefighters are also exempt from a 1987 law outlawing mandatory retirement.
The FAA contends that the age-60 rule is necessary to ensure safety. The pilots counter that their experience and maturity promote safety. It was a 58-year-old United Airlines captain who in 1989 landed a crippled DC-10 in an Iowa cornfield. Although more than 100 passengers lost their lives, he was hailed as a hero for averting a disaster that could have killed everyone on board. That same year a 59-year-old United pilot safely landed a plane in Hawaii after a cargo door blew off.
The appeal by the Professional Pilots Federation raises important workplace questions: Who is old? And when?
The answers are as variable as individuals and the work they do. Safety is obviously paramount. But too often, judgments may have less to do with a person's capabilities than with age-based stereotypes.
Even language can play a negative role. No one has yet come up with a good way to describe people from midlife on. "Elderly" and "senior citizen" sound derogatory - condescending and ancient.
Last month a Boston newspaper printed a photo taken at an accident scene. The caption described the driver as "elderly." But the story gave his age as 60. That's elderly? Not quite. Those sixtysomething pilots would be insulted.
But tell that to employers in certain other fields, who still regard workers much younger than 60 as over the hill. A staff member at the Writer's Guild in California offers one example, explaining that it is increasingly hard for scriptwriters in the entertainment industry to get work after 45 or even 40.
Given the power of TV and movies to shape attitudes, an absence of midlife and older writers can only reinforce ageist stereotypes and promote a youth culture. No wonder older characters and workers are virtually absent from the screen.
For many Americans, retirement is a stage of life undergoing profound change. Mixed signals abound. Downsizing and golden parachutes are forcing many workers to leave in their 50s. At the same time, the minimum age for collecting full Social Security is gradually rising from 65 to 67.
Stephen Pollan, author of the bestseller "Die Broke," argues against retiring at all. Calling the concept a matter of "social engineering," he urges people to keep working - earning and spending all the way to the end.
As life spans increase, his proposal could make sense for some. But without enlightened employers in every field willing to keep and hire experienced workers, it will not be an option for the majority of those who reach what the French call le troisime ge - the third age.
Whatever ultimately happens to the older pilots, who have vowed to keep fighting, they serve as a reminder that playing strictly by the numbers can be counterproductive. Baseball great Satchel Paige summed it up best when he asked, "How old would you be if you didn't know how old you was?"
Perhaps his famous question should be updated with an alternate version for employers in the 1990s: How old would your employees be if you didn't know how old they were?
The answer could open up as expansive a horizon for pilots as it did for Paige, whose pitching arm outlasted batters not even born when he started.
Too often, judgments about retirement age may have more to do with age-based stereotypes than with a person's capabilities.