The middle-manager was upset. It looked like his company was going to lose mandatory retirement for 65-year-olds, and he didn't like that at all. Mandatory retirement, he said, was neat. No muss, no fuss. It cleaned out the deadwood and put a deadline on the work life of his employees.
Yes, it was true he'd lost some good workers over the years, but on the other hand, the rule had made life easier for him. It had taken the decision "out of his hands." When it came time, he could just say: "We wish we could keep you, but you know how it is . . ."
The middle-manager wasn't alone in his anxiety. Another executive was talking about the worker he's been "carrying" on the payroll for three years. And still another manager listed the guys in his corporation who long ago traded in their ambition for long lunch hours and a paycheck, playing the waiting game. He asked: "How are we going to get rid of them now?"
They were all mulling over the effects of extending mandatory retirement from 65 to 70. But in the process they revealed something special, not about aging, but about themselves. Like many of the assorted bosses of our workaday lives, they would, on the whole, rather not deal with people as individuals, one by one, face to face.
They prefer a door to hide behind and a rule to do their dirty work. They often act out of a fear of confrontation and with the ineptness of those uncomfortable in the business of human relationships.
The workers they were talking about are familiar. There's one in every office. The incompetent or embittered, the stumbler or the coaster. They can be found up and down the age ladder.
Each office develops elaborate dynamics to deal with the problem people by any means except the direct and personal ones. We have seen how often coworkers step gingerly around someone with an emotional problem, and how they work around people who don't perform. Whole conspiracies grow up to avoid the truth.
In each vast conglomerate there is a fake job and a catalog of busywork devised to occupy a vice president. In every company there is an executive who has held onto a title while losing authority. In each division there is at least one worker being humored into impotence under the guise of kindness.
Corporations seem to alternate between ignoring the problem people and summarily firing them, or waiting a bit and retiring them. The employee who has been fired is often genuinely shocked. When he or she says, "They never complained about my work," it's as likely to be truth as a defensive fantasy. The older worker is apt to find his job being removed, memo by memo, while everyone pats him on the back telling him how invaluable his experience is to the company.
The root truth in all these scenarios is how little effort at mutual employer-employee problem-solving goes on in businesses. How little honest encounter.
They prefer to avoid the basic business questions that involve "feelings." How do you re-energize a discouraged employee and recycle a bored worker? How do you deal with someone who isn't performing up to standard? How do you phase people into positions that may require less energy, time or authority, without humiliating them?
Only the best bosses can handle the human situations that require understanding and negotiations. The majority shy away from any kind of emotion. They are afraid of a scene, of anger, of tears or visible pain.
The very same executive who can make a multimillion-dollar decision on steel or importing computers will often go to great lengths to avoid deciding whether one 65-year-old should be promoted and another urged gently into retirement. While comfortable with their power over "things," they are uncomfortable with their power over people, and least comfortable dealing with it in person.
So mandatory retirement has helped those like the middle-manager. They could blame the policy - "the rule did it" - and avoid guilt and discomfort. They could deal with categories instead of people.
But now that machete-moment is being postponed from 65 to 70 in many places. In its place, perhaps business can develop the more delicate instrument it needs: careful, thoughtful interaction between people - a human relationship.