Some older workers, pressured to quit, fight back

By Nelson D. Schwartz

New York Times News Service

Published: Friday, May 27 2011 9:00 p.m. MDT

As the managing partner of a top Los Angeles law firm, Norman H. Levine is no stranger to what might be called the Posada problem.

Nothing, he said, is as tough as telling fellow partners that their best days are behind them. "I've always joked that I wish I could have these conversations by phone," Levine said. "If someone wants to stay and you don't want them to, that's the hardest. It's like going to your parents and telling them they can't handle their affairs anymore."

If anyone doubts the sensitivity of the task, consider the case of Jorge Posada, the once-formidable New York Yankee who at the ripe old age of 39 found himself demoted in the starting lineup, unable to consistently do the one thing a designated hitter does — hit. When he got the news this month, he walked into manager Joe Girardi's office an hour before the game was to start and announced he wasn't going to play.

Few professionals in other fields have that option — Posada's contract guarantees him $13.1 million this year, despite a batting average of .183, the lowest among designated hitters in Major League Baseball. But the painful encounter between coach and lagging star — Posada apologized the next day — is one that is taking place with increasing frequency in the wood-paneled aeries of law firms, banks and other elite professions, industry insiders said.

"All the rules have changed," said a longtime New York executive recruiter, Richard Stein of Caldwell Partners. "In a market that's become extremely lean and mean, these individuals who have tended to be the senior statesmen of their day are sometimes the first to go."

It can happen at any age, of course, but it's an especially delicate issue in an era when many workers stay on after they turn 66, when they qualify for full Social Security benefits.

Even as old notions of professional courtesy and obligation erode, so too has the quiet acceptance of traditional, mandatory retirement ages. Twice in recent years the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission has sued top law firms, accusing them of discriminating against older partners, and a closely watched case now under way could make it even harder for firms to dislodge aging lions.

As roughly 44 million baby boomers hit retirement age over the next decade, the problem of how and when to step aside is becoming a hot-button issue, said Robert J. Gordon, a professor of economics at Northwestern University. Many older workers have had to put off retirement because of stock market losses during the recent deep recession. And while unemployment among older workers is lower than the national average at 6.2 percent, it's up sharply from three years ago, when it stood at 2.9 percent.

Some jobs will always have age restrictions — police officers, firefighters, surgeons and the like. And in corporate America, mandatory retirement ages for senior management face less resistance, thanks in part to generous incentives to leave early that are perfectly legal. What's more, federal law permits age limits for the top brass who set corporate policy.

But chief executives still have a habit of hanging on, said Jeffrey A. Sonnenfeld, a professor at the Yale School of Management and the author of a book on the subject, "The Hero's Farewell." Sonnenfeld has even developed a taxonomy to describe how different executives handle the challenge of going into the sunset.

The monarchs stamp out rivals and remain on the throne until they die or are forced out, while the ambassadors become senior statesmen, attending the economic forum at Davos, Switzerland, and similar affairs. Generals leave under pressure and spend their days plotting a Napoleonic return to power. Finally, there are the governors, who go on to do something else, like philanthropy or public service.

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