Senior citizens -- including those in their 70s and beyond -- may soon be an increasingly familiar sight behind store counters, at office desks, on factory assembly lines, and even at construction projects.
There are moves afoot at both the state and national level to ban or scale back laws forcing thousands every year to leave their jobs purely on account of age. While prospects for erasing mandatory retirement at 70 are at best uncertain, they appear to have brightened with the recent support of President Ronald Reagan.
Reagan, who at age 71 is the oldest White House occupant in the nation's history, says he intends to work for passage of a measure that would prevent workers from retiring at any age as long as they performed satisfactorily.
''When it comes to retirement, the criterion should be fitness to work, not year of birth,'' the President asserted in a statement made in conjunction with the proclamation of May as Older Americans Month.
The Reagan endorsement of wiping out age barriers in public and private employment caught both organized labor and the business community by surprise.
The question of eliminating mandatory retirement, which four years ago was raised from age 65 to 70, now is being quietly explored. Several national groups representing companies and workers that could be affected by changes are looking at the potential effect.
''We don't know exactly what the President might have in mind, and in the absence of a specific proposal it is difficult to take a position,'' says Bert Seidman, director of the social security division of the AFL-CIO. He declines to speculate what position his organization might take if and when the matter came before its executive board.
He says it is his impression that removal of mandatory retirement ''would not have a major impact'' on the work force. The labor official adds that despite initial concern, the raising of the retirement age from 65 to 70 had brought few , if any, problems.
Patricia Callahan, director of employer relations for the National Association of Manufacturers (NAM), similarly assesses the effect of the 1978 law. Her organization's initial reaction to the President's ''uncapping of retirement'' is one of neither support nor opposition, she emphasizes, noting that a position may be taken after a poll of NAM members is completed.
Thus far one major proposal for getting rid of age discrimination in the private sector is on file in Congress. The measure, sponsored by US Rep. Claude Pepper (D) ofUFquoteElimination of age-forced retirement has national support, says a 1981 poll in which 90 percent of those questioned favored such a move.
Florida, has been before the House Committee on Education and Labor for nearly a year.
''President Reagan's announcement that he now supports legislation to extend existing protections against mandatory retirement is the best news the administration has given the elderly since taking office,'' says Mr. Pepper, who chairs the House Select Committee on Aging. ''(It) has cleared the way for legislation on this issue this year. I am now working with administration representatives and others in the House and Senate to reach an agreement on specific provisions of the bill.''
Certain provisions, including ones that would liberalize social security benefits for those who elect to delay their retirement beyond age 65, could jeopardize eventual passage, some congressional observers say.
Public and private workers in at least eight states -- California, Florida, Iowa, Maine, New Hampshire, Tennessee, Utah, and Vermont -- are already protected fromUFquoteThe Reagan endorsement of wiping out age barriers in public and private employment caught both labor and business by surprise.
mandatory retirement at 70. Each of these states, over the past four years, has enacted measures specifically abolishing mandatory retirement.
Eleven other states indirectly guarantee a person's right to stay on his or her job as long as he or she is capable of performing satisfactorily. Employment terminations for workers over 70 in Alaska, Arizona, Connecticut, Hawaii, Maryland, Michigan, Montana, Nevada, New Mexico, North Carolina, and North Dakota, must be for reasons other than age.
Legislation either eliminating mandatory retirement ages or extending job age discrimination protections is under consideration in Massachusetts, Pennsylvania , and New York.
The Massachusetts proposal, pushed by the commonwealth's elder affairs secretary, Thomas H. D. Mahoney, would be one of the nation's strongest, with forced retirements at a specific age limited to certain types of jobs, such as law enforcement.
President Reagan, in calling for an end to forced retirements based solely on age, said that studies by his administration indicate the consequences would be minimal on the employment of workers in other age groups. At the same time, he added, it would ''help erase the unjust perception that persons over 70 are less productive than their fellow citizens.''
He and other supporters make it clear it is not their intent to force anyone to keep on working when he qualifies for social security or private pension benefits. The pending legislation would simply provide an option for people to stay in the work force longer.
Elimination of age-forced retirement has broad national support, according to a 1981 Harris poll in which 90 percent of those questioned favored such a move.
Despite their reluctance to take what might be an unpopular stand in opposing removal of mandatory retirement ages, some employers are concerned that with rising living costs, larger numbers of workers might be encouraged to postpone retirement, thus making it hard to bring in younger employees.
Whether organized labor and a significant segment of the business community ultimately support ending retirement based on age, or at least take a neutral stance on it, could hinge substantially on the experience of some of the states with such laws on the books.