On the march with the grey panthers

December 22, 2006

After teaching in a university for more than 30 years, I will soon reach retirement age. But why should I be compelled to go? I like my students; I enjoy doing research. Being forced to retire is nothing less than age discrimination. Yet, despite the recent implementation of a European Directive outlawing ageism, universities are still allowed to terminate contracts at 65. Fortunately, Age Concern is challenging this tyranny. All interested parties were recently invited to attend a judicial hearing. I went along to observe.

As I entered the Royal Courts of Justice in London, the first thing I noticed were portraits of former judges hanging in the hall. Not one looked a day under 70. At the end of the hall was a formidable bust of Queen Victoria. She was still Empress of India when she celebrated her 80th birthday. Clearly, there is one law for monarchs and judges, quite another for less exalted individuals such as academics.

Outside the court, a crowd had assembled. There was a smart coterie from the Department of Trade and Industry. Aggressively youthful, they were there to ensure the removal of maturity, experience and wisdom from Britain's universities. We of Age Concern looked more diverse. We glared at the young bucks opposite and muttered to each other that it would take only another 20 years for them to realise their mistake.

Eventually, about 50 of us filed into the public gallery. Barristers in gowns and wigs assembled before the judge. Our lawyer was magnificent. He embarked on a lengthy analysis of retirement law, stressing the inherent flaws of the current situation. It was way above my head, but the judge seemed impressed. I nodded off in the middle, but woke as the speech ended.

It appeared that our man and the barrister for the DTI had agreed in advance that the case be referred to the European Court for deliberation.

As the minutes passed, the public gallery grew restless. It was not enough that the two lawyers were of one mind. The judge had to agree, too. He was determined that the matter be properly aired, but eventually the call of lunch penetrated even the most obscure legalities. It was pronounced that further clarification should indeed be sought from Europe. We all rose; his lordship disappeared for refreshment and everyone else sagely accepted that the right decision had been made.

In the US, as a result of the activities of the so-called Grey Lobby, mandatory retirement has been abolished and thousands of university teachers have continued in work long past 65. If it is wrong to discriminate on grounds of gender and race, it must also be wrong to discriminate on grounds of age. Compulsory retirement at any age must be an infringement of individual rights. The only pertinent issue can be a lecturer's ability to do his or her job successfully.

As I walked out into the Strand, I felt very sprightly. The Grey Panthers are on the march even in Britain. Younger academics are in for a shock.

Some of their older colleagues may be around for a very long time. While I looked for my midday sandwich (low cholesterol), I remembered Lord Brockhurst's song from The Boy Friend : "It's never too late for fun and larks/ A jolly old flame has lots of sparks/ And it's never too late to fall in love.../ It's never too late to be a beau/ Experience counts a lot, you know/ And it's never too late to fall in... love."

Dan Cohn-Sherbok is professor of Jewish theology at the University of Wales, Lampeter.

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