WHO is old? And who decides when it is time for an employee to retire? A small drama being played out in the biochemistry department at the University of California at Berkeley raises these two questions. The controversy centers around Howard Schachman, a prominent professor of molecular biology and biochemistry. Professor Schachman, who is 71, is challenging the university's policy requiring mandatory retirement at 70. He has filed a complaint with the California Department of Fair Employment and Housing, charging age discrimination.
As a professor, Schachman has received rave reviews from colleagues. One calls him a ``model Berkeley professor.'' Another observes that ``he's doing what people half his age do, and doing it better.'' Last year he was also awarded a five-year, $1.8 million grant from the National Institutes of Health.
But universities across the country argue that without a provision for mandatory retirement, tenured professors, like federal judges, would have lifetime appointments. This would limit openings for younger professors and inflate budgets to pay the higher salaries older teachers earn.
Since 1986, mandatory retirement has been illegal for all but a few jobs. Exceptions include tenured professors, high-level executives, and airline pilots.
Laws and policies are one thing. Actual practices are another. While the age ceiling has been lifted, the average age of retirement continues to drop. In many cases, age discrimination has merely been driven underground, couched in euphemisms such as ``enhanced early retirement'' and ``golden parachutes.''
Last week, in another challenge to mandatory retirement laws, a federal court of appeals in Chicago upheld a 30-year-old Federal Aviation Administration rule that requires commercial airline pilots to retire at 60. The agency argues that allowing pilots to fly after 60 poses safety threats. Those who oppose the restriction contend that older pilots bring valuable experience to the job.
Although all three judges expressed reservations about the ruling, they could not find sufficient evidence to overrule F.A.A. concerns. Even so, they cautioned that ``the F.A.A. should not take this as a signal that the age 60 rule is sacrosanct and untouchable.''
Improvements in health and longevity are redefining age. Biotechnology now makes it possible for women to bear children after menopause. Seventy-year-olds run marathons. Octogenarians compete in tennis matches. Several years ago a grandmother in her 90s even climbed Mt. Fuji.
The old platitude, ``You're only as old as you think you are,'' seems demonstrably truer today than ever before. However judiciously expressed, the bias against age is frequently just that.
Three thousand miles from where Professor Schachman's drama is being played out in Berkeley, the argument for mandatory retirement has been stated more crudely, if more indirectly. Zelda Gamson, a sociology professor at the Boston campus of the University of Massachusetts, speculates that a growing age gap between senior faculty members and students may make students reluctant to confide in professors.
``The faculty are sort of out of it,'' she told a Boston Globe reporter. ``They really do not understand the youth culture.''
Even in Japan, where elders were once famously revered, the culture is becoming ruder. Respect for older people is waning as the retired population grows. A new derogatory term has been coined to describe a retiree who sits around the house much of the time: nureochiba, a wet, fallen leaf.
To polarize juniors vs. seniors, youth vs. experience, as if the two age constituencies represent an either-or choice, is self-defeating. A work force of nothing but young Turks would be as one-sided as a work force of all veterans. Here, as in other respects, the ideal is a mix where youth and experience combine and serve to provide checks and balances for each other.
Martin Sicker, director of work equity for the American Association of Retired Persons in Washington, D.C., sums up the challenge facing employers. ``Pushing older workers out becomes almost a tragedy,'' he says. ``We must figure out ways to make better use of human resources.''