When are you too old to represent the United States abroad?

We have written previously about the ongoing court challenge by American diplomat, Dr. Elizabeth Colton on the mandatory age retirement in the Foreign Service (see Colton v. Clinton, search Bradley v. Vance or “retirement” in this blog). 

Michele Kelemen has a piece yesterday in NPR News asking “when are you too old to represent the U.S. abroad?”  Excerpt below:

That question is on the minds of some Foreign Service officers who are bumping up against a mandatory retirement age.

The age rule doesn’t cover Secretary of State Hillary Clinton or ambassadors. Rather, it’s a cap for midranking officials, already in short supply.

From her post in Karachi, Pakistan, Elizabeth Colton has had a busy summer trying to improve America’s image and deal with devastating floods. She also has a more personal problem on her hands: Tuesday was her 65th birthday, something she would have liked to have celebrated. But in her case, it means the end of a career path she loves.

“It is not like the age [at which] one becomes decrepit,” she says. “In fact, maybe you have more energy, more focused energy.”

Colton seems to thrive on her seven-day-a-week job, having spent her birthday visiting flood victims in camps in Karachi. And, she’s not retiring without a fight. Last year, she filed a lawsuit calling the mandatory retirement age unconstitutional. And she’s been pushing from within — finally getting a one-year extension to work in Cairo.

Like many of the Foreign Service officers running up against this mandatory retirement age, Colton came to the job late in life after other careers, including a job as NPR’s diplomatic correspondent.
Another former journalist, Diana Page, works at the State Department assisting foreign reporters in Washington. Fluent in Spanish and Portuguese, she has served in — among other places — Guyana, Chile, Bosnia and northeastern Brazil. She’s ready to put in a few more years, but she’s 64.
Page is not suing but has been trying to get Clinton’s attention at town hall meetings. She has been rehearsing her question.

“My question is, ‘Madame Secretary, as you have said this is a great job, you are clearly enjoying being secretary of state. Do you think it is fair that I have to retire being your age and you don’t?’ ” she says. “You know, no. But I haven’t had a chance to raise it.”

State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley says the department is guided by the Foreign Service Act of 1980, which sets the retirement age but also allows the secretary to give limited extensions. He says the idea is to make sure younger Foreign Service officers have a chance to move up. Crowley says retirees can come back on temporary assignments.
“We look at creative ways of continuing to use these talented people,” he says. “We have lots of different programs to do that.”
The American Foreign Service Association, which represents the interests of Foreign Service employees, is calling on the State Department to be more transparent about all of that. Members are still split on the broader issue of retirement, says Susan Johnson, AFSA’s president.
While the professional association looks into the issue, Colton argues in her lawsuit that age discrimination shouldn’t be tolerated at all — that there should be no age limit. She calls it a matter of civil rights.

Read the whole thing here.

So according to this report, Dr. Colton received a one year extension beyond her 65th birthday, and she’s going to spend it in a marvelous place called Egypt.  Questions, please.  Was that because she has an ongoing litigation against the State Department, or was that extension granted in the public interest, ground for waiving the mandatory retirement?

If this is because of the ongoing litigation …. well, I supposed that would be understandable. No organization would like to be perceived as “unfair” in kicking out a litigant before a case is decided in court. On the other hand, when the original challenge to the MAR was mounted in the 1977 by Hopey Bradley, the case did not get a final decision until two years later. Does this mean that if this case still languishes in court in 2011 that Dr. Colton will get a second waiver from getting chuck out the airlock?

If this one-year extension for an assignment in Cairo is in the public interest –how is that so?

State is sending  a seasoned public diplomacy officer to Egypt for one year instead of the normal tour of duty of three years.  That means instead of relocation expense for one officer in the next three years, State will have relocation expenses for two officers between now and 2011, when Dr. Colton’s tour in Cairo concludes.  How is more expense for an already budget-strapped bureaucracy is really in the public interest?

My understanding of MAR is that the Foreign Service Act allows a waiver of up to five years past 65 but the individual will be locked into his/her current grade with no additional opportunities for career advancement or promotion. But given that there is a real experience gap in the mid-level staffing of the Foreign Service, especially in the Consular and Public Diplomacy career tracks, why is this such a hard nut to crack for HR and the Director General of the Foreign Service?
Isn’t there a sensible way of dealing with a case like this?

Is there fear out there that this would set a precedent for more MAR waiver requests from the retiring baby boomers currently in the Service?

Oh, I’d so like to understand the thought process that went into this decision.

We note that the State Department Spokesman, Mr. Crowley said “We have lots of different programs to do that.” “That is, “creative ways of continuing to use these talented people.”

Um, really? Return as an acronym?  As “WAEs” or as they are creatively named, “When Actually Employed” employees — capped at certain number of hours worked, sent on temporary assignments, and paid at lower rates?

So — to repeat the NPR question — when are you too old to represent the U.S. abroad?

It looks like at 6-5. Really! (Dudes, you better have good parachutes!) 

Unless, of course, you have the anti-age defense of dark arts device as Secretary of State, as Chiefs of Mission, as honored political appointees or as members of the Senior Foreign Service.

Or unless, you have taken the State Department to court.

Or unless your service is deemed in the national interest like say — you’re the only one that Hugo Chavez follows and directly messages in Twitter or you have the personal email of Dear Leader in Pyongyang and he routinely zaps you with questions about Hollywood movie stars. 

The Blog of Legal Times has more details about this case and the injunction filed and withdrawn:

“According to court records, on Aug. 4, the State Department told Colton via e-mail that her mandatory retirement had been postponed until Sept. 2011 and that she had approved to serve as the information officer for the U.S. Embassy in Cairo.”

In any case — in all seriousness because this is no laughing matter — here is a related item from the Stanford Center for Longevity on the New Reality of an Older America. Not to scare you but its key findings span economic, social and political implications for Americans of all ages (including you and me):

  • The number of older people (age 65 and over) will double over the next 30 years, from 40 million to 80 million, and the percentage of older people in the population will increase from 13% to 20%.
  • By 2032, there will be more people 65 or older than children under 15.
  • By the time the youngest baby boomers turn 65 in 2029, 1 in 5 Americans will be 65 or older. The percentage of 85-year-olds will grow even faster.
  • If retirement is not delayed there will be fewer and fewer potential workers per retiree. Longer working lives, in contrast, would make use of the most educated older population in the history of the country.
  • Without policy and behavioral changes, the fiscal burden on individual workers and taxpayers will skyrocket.
  • Unless people work longer, the personal financial burden also will increase as people reach older ages.

Read the whole report here.  Something to think about.