Should Americans have to retire at age 70? Or should they be able to work as long as they wish? Congress is trying to come up with an answer. But President Reagan, merely by showing what septuagenarians can do, may be answering the questions far more effectively than any action the House and Senate finally take.
Experts on older Americans are noting that many older people, especially those between 65 and 80, shatter outdated stereotypes by being mentally and physically vigorous -- and fully capable of working, if they choose to do so.
Congress has gone half the way in the direction of throwing away the age-70 barrier for some workers -- but it may not go the whole way this year. Supporters of greater rights for older Americans disagree among themselves as to whether a bill to lift the barrier, unanimously passed this week by the House of Representatives, represents a step forward or a step backward.
This is because it contains a sizable exemption for state and local police officers and firefighters. Until there is agreement, it is unclear whether the Senate will act. There are already several other exemptions in current law.
But it is widely agreed that the unanimous House vote shows broad support for the concept of removing mandatory age requirements and leaving the choice of retirement up to employees as long as they are carrying their weight on the job.
The new proposal would amend the existing law, which says that there can be no age discrimination up to age 70 for employees of the federal government or of firms that receive federal funds. Backers of the current law say it sets a standard for private businesses and state and local governments to follow.
Ironically, what Congress finally decides to do may prove to be relatively unimportant. ``The age discrimination act has had no impact'' on either the federal government or private employers that receive federal funds, says Douglas Besharov, a social scientist with the American Enterprise Institute. ``None whatsoever.''
Other observers similarly question whether the law, passed in 1967 and substantially amended in 1978, has had significant effect. They say the regulations are too loose, there is not much desire to enforce it, and many Americans covered by the law do not even realize that it exists.
``I personally think,'' Mr. Besharov says, ``that Ronald Reagan's being President [he is 75] has done a lot for older people. I think that in the last six years we have changed our minds as to what older people can do.''
For whatever reason, there has been a push over the past two decades to end discrimination against Americans over 65, and to readjust invalid stereotypes of them.
This antidiscrimination movement is at least partly parallel to the civil rights movements in behalf of black Americans, and, later, of women. The anti-age-discrimination movement is led by effective organizations that represent the elderly, such as the American Association of Retired Persons, and by several elected officials, of whom the most visible is Rep. Claude Pepper (D) of Florida, now in his 87th year. Representative Pepper is the principal proponent of the House-passed measure; a similar proposal has been introduced in the Senate by Sen. John Heinz (R) of Pennsylvania, another staunch supporter of older Americans and chairman of the Senate Select Committee on Aging.
Whatever Congress ultimately does, demographers are noting that in the next few years job opportunities will begin to chase after older Americans who want to continue working.
Twenty-eight million Americans are now over 65, and the number is growing steadily. Shortly after the turn of the century it will zoom upward, as the post-World War II baby-boomers reach retirement age. At that time there will be too few Americans in the under-65 work force, demographers say, opening up many opportunities for senior citizens to continue working if they so desire.