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More Arguments Against Mandatory Retirement February 16, 2007

Posted by federalist in Retirement.
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Human mental faculties suffer measurable declines with age.  Professions like air traffic control and piloting set absolute age limits, supposedly out of concern that older workers simply cannot maintain safe performance standards.  Many other professions, like law, try to force workers into retirement at age 60 or 65, though the only basis for such traditions I can imagine is the fact that over a century ago that is the age at which people typically died.

Research highlighted today in the WSJ reveals that, even as generalized mental skills like attention and memory degenerate, job-specific faculties are quite resistant to gerontological decay.  In fact, the experience accumulated over years in a profession can confer a performance advantage over the more agile brains of younger people.  This suggests that mandatory retirement — at least at the ages currently indicated — is both unfair and counterproductive.

Discoveries of brain functions that hold up, or even improve, through the decades could affect corporate and public policy. As baby boomers age, many are resisting mandatory retirement. In January, a special committee of the New York State Bar Association recommended that law firms abandon the practice. Air-traffic controllers are asking federal agencies to reconsider the requirement that they retire at age 55, and the Federal Aviation Administration in January proposed pushing back the mandatory retirement age for commercial pilots, which is currently 60.

The emerging neuroscience is on their side. One of the most robust cognitive abilities is semantic memory, which is recollection of facts and figures. “Semantic memory is relatively resistant to the effects of aging,” says psychology professor Arthur Kramer of the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign. Semantic memory includes vocabulary, which increases with age so reliably (at least in people who continue reading) that a younger person should never challenge a sharp 75-year-old to a crossword puzzle.

Expert knowledge — information about an occupational or even hobbyist specialty — resists the effects of aging, too…. Synapses that encode expert knowledge “are written in stone,” says neuroscientist John Morrison of the Mount Sinai School of Medicine in New York.

The longevity of expert knowledge and cognitive templates lies behind the finding that air-traffic controllers in their 60s are at least as skilled as those in their 30s. When Prof. Kramer of Illinois and a colleague at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology gave older controllers standard lab tests for reaction speed, memory, attention and the like, they found the usual: Performance declined compared with that of 30-somethings.

But on more fast-paced, complex — and hence realistic — tests in which they juggled multiple airliners and handled emergencies, the senior controllers did as well as or better than the young ones. They kept simulated planes safely away from each other, and when they ordered planes to change their altitude, heading or speed to avoid a collision, they used fewer commands than younger ones. It was as if their experience had equipped them with the most efficient algorithm for keeping the planes safely spaced.

“Their experience and their knowledge of aircraft types and strategies they’ve used for years can compensate for a decline in these other abilities,” says Prof. Kramer, who has submitted the study to a science journal. The findings, he says, suggest the need to revisit “the whole notion of when we need to retire people, since their ability to do these complex tasks resists decline.”

The biggest benefit of an older brain is that fewer real-life challenges require deliberate, effortful problem-solving. Where once it took hours of methodical scrutiny to understand a prospectus, for instance, older lawyers and investment bankers can zoom in on crucial sections and fit them into what they already know.

Elkhonon Goldberg, a neuropsychologist who has a private practice and is a professor at New York University School of Medicine, finds that he can also grasp the essence of data presented in scientific papers more readily than he once could, something that more than makes up for losses in other mental realms. “I am not nearly as good at laborious, grinding, focused mental computations,” he says, “but then again, I do not experience the need to resort to them nearly as often.”

While younger brains solve problems step-by-step, older brains call on cognitive templates, those generic outlines of a problem and a solution that worked before. It’s the feeling you get when you see that a new situation or problem belongs to a class of situations or problems you have encountered before, with the result that you don’t have to attack them methodically. Yes, older people forget little things, and may have occasional attention lapses, but their cognitive templates are so rich that they more than hold their own. Their brains can keep up even with a diminished supply of blood and oxygen.

It is terrible that society is encouraging all of these experienced minds to “retire” and stop doing what they do best.  It’s like throwing away a pair of leather shoes just as soon as they are broken in.

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