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Should Older Executives Make Way for Youth?

Older workers are older than ever. Here's when they should step aside.

Q: I’m a fortysomething department head in a midsize company. All of the senior executives—who effectively control the firm—are in their mid sixties and give no indication of planning to retire. As a matter of fact, some of them gloat about their robust health and intention to work forever. It seems to us younger managers that these men and women—who still do their work diligently—don’t have the vision and energy to move our company forward. To us, they are hogging the top positions and salaries, to the detriment of our careers and the company’s success. I think they have an ethical obligation to step aside and make room for new leadership. What do you think?

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I am sympathetic to your frustration, which seems more common today, as many workers stay on well past the traditional retirement age of 65, with strong legal protections against age-based termination. This is happening for two reasons: They are able to (thanks to good health), and they want to (due to financial need and/or genuine pride in their performance). This trend is having a negative effect on advancement opportunities for younger employees, and older workers (especially senior executives) should be sensitive to this. Gloating is certainly unseemly.

But older workers don’t have any ethical obligation to step aside, because there is no clear correlation between age and competence. They should have the self-awareness (admittedly rare) to recognize whether they are past their prime—and if so, the integrity to step aside—before their subordinates begin to resent them or leave for better opportunities elsewhere.

Senior executives should continually groom their successors and give younger colleagues expanded duties and incentives (both financial and psychological) to stay with the firm. If you and your peers don’t feel this is being done in your workplace, don’t just stew about it. Bring it up with senior management in a constructive way.

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