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When are you old and useless?

By Dean Obeidallah, Special to CNN
June 7, 2013 -- Updated 2141 GMT (0541 HKT)
Should judges have a mandatory retirement age?
Should judges have a mandatory retirement age?
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Dean Obeidallah: Each day, people hear the catch phrase, "Happy Birthday: You're fired!"
  • Obeidallah: Despite age discrimination law, workers are let go because of their age
  • He says mandatory retirement age doesn't make sense for people who are fit to do the job
  • Obeidallah: Judges, for example, shouldn't have to retire so long as they are mentally agile

Editor's note: Dean Obeidallah, a former attorney, is a political comedian and frequent commentator on various TV networks including CNN. He is the editor of the politics blog The Dean's Report and co-host of a new CNN podcast "The Big Three" that looks at the top three stories of the week. Follow him on Twitter @deanofcomedy.

(CNN) -- "Happy Birthday: You're fired!"

No, that's not the catch phrase from a new reality show hosted by Donald Trump. It's worse than that -- assuming there could be something worse than a new Donald Trump reality show.

This statement is in essence what many Americans around the country hear each day because of legally mandated retirement age. Even though you may have been an outstanding worker the day before, because you are now one day older and have reached the retirement age limit, you are tossed in the waste bin.

Dean Obeidallah
Dean Obeidallah

Just so it's clear, age discrimination in most fields is prohibited by the Age Discrimination in Employment Act passed by Congress in 1967. This law protects workers between 40 and 70 from age discrimination.

The law was amended in 1986 to expand protections to workers over 70 years old. Fittingly, this extension was signed into law by then 75-year-old President Ronald Reagan, who remarked: "We take another important step by ensuring that the many individuals 70 years of age and older, who have valuable contributions to make, will now have the opportunity to do so."

The problem is that this law provides numerous exceptions that result in legally sanctioned age discrimination in various professions.

For example, federal air traffic controllers cannot be older than 30 when starting their employment and must retire by 56.

FBI agents can say, "Freeze FBI!" up until they are 57 years old. But then they have to turn in their FBI windbreaker. (The FBI director can extend an agent's service a few more years depending on circumstances.)

Airline pilots must leave the cockpit and became permanent passengers at 65 years of age. National Park rangers must retire at 57. And numerous state and local governments are able to mandate that firefighters and police officers be sent off to pasture at a certain age.

Sure, some of these professions involve a standard in physical competency, which was the rationale for the age limit. But every 57-year-old isn't the same. Nor is every 77-year-old. As opposed to blanket firings based on age, testing can easily be implemented to ensure that each individual is still capable of executing the tasks required of the job.

Mandatory age restrictions are not just limited to occupations that have a physical component. Judges in 33 states are required by law to retire between 70 and 75 years of age. A judge doesn't do much physically -- they put on a robe, walk to the bench, strike the gavel a few times -- done. Sure, every now and then they raise their voice when angry at a lawyer- being a former lawyer I can attest to being on the receiving end of their barbs -- but not much more.

For judges it's all about mental fitness. The good news is that 10 states are currently considering raising the mandatory retirement age, including New York where the issue is being discussed in the state's legislature this week.

Thankfully, life expectancy in the United States is an ever-improving proposition. It is now up to 78 years old, an increase of approximately eight years since the 1960s. If you want to see how long the U.S. government thinks you will live to the exact month, check out the creepy life expectancy calculator on the Social Security Administration's website.

A recent poll found that most Americans are delaying their retirement. It is now up to 61 from 57 years old in the 1990s. And non-retired workers plan to retire at 66, up from 60 in 1995.

Certainly, this can be attributed to the fact that some don't have the funds needed to retire earlier. But for many, it's that they are physically and mentally adept enough to keep working. I'm sure there are some people who love their jobs and want to work as long as possible.

Why shouldn't older Americans be able to work as long as they choose to as long as they are physically and mentally fit enough?

Legally mandated retirement ages don't make sense from a business point of view either. Why wouldn't employers want to retain older employees who have rich experiences and skills that are assets?

The concept that a person should be let go solely because of age is just as wrong as discrimination based on race, gender or ethnicity.

Plus, legally sanctioned age discrimination sends a horrible message that older workers are inherently less valuable than younger ones.

Changing perceptions about older workers will take time, but a great step forward would be for Congress to amend the Age Discrimination in Employment Act to make it clear that age discrimination in all professions will no longer be tolerated in the United States of America.

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The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Dean Obeidallah.

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