Foreign Service Officers Fight Retirement Age Cap

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton i i

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, age 62, doesn't face mandatory retirement at age 65 like many Foreign Service officials do. Evan Vucci/AP hide caption

itoggle caption Evan Vucci/AP
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, age 62, doesn't face mandatory retirement at age 65 like many Foreign Service officials do.

Evan Vucci/AP

When are you too old to represent the U.S. abroad? That question is on the minds of some Foreign Service officers who are bumping up against a mandatory retirement age.

The age rule doesn't cover Secretary of State Hillary Clinton or ambassadors. Rather, it's a cap for midranking officials, already in short supply.

From her post in Karachi, Pakistan, Elizabeth Colton has had a busy summer trying to improve America's image and deal with devastating floods. She also has a more personal problem on her hands: Tuesday was her 65th birthday, something she would have liked to have celebrated. But in her case, it means the end of a career path she loves.

"It is not like the age [at which] one becomes decrepit," she says. "In fact, maybe you have more energy, more focused energy."

A Lawsuit

Colton seems to thrive on her seven-day-a-week job, having spent her birthday visiting flood victims in camps in Karachi. And, she's not retiring without a fight. Last year, she filed a lawsuit calling the mandatory retirement age unconstitutional. And she's been pushing from within — finally getting a one-year extension to work in Cairo.

Like many of the Foreign Service officers running up against this mandatory retirement age, Colton came to the job late in life after other careers, including a job as NPR's diplomatic correspondent.

"I was a journalist, I was an anthropologist, I was a press secretary, I was a professor," she says. "It was a childhood dream that I wanted to be a diplomat as well as a journalist and an adventuress."

Another former journalist, Diana Page, works at the State Department assisting foreign reporters in Washington. Fluent in Spanish and Portuguese, she has served in — among other places — Guyana, Chile, Bosnia and northeastern Brazil. She's ready to put in a few more years, but she's 64.

"I have one more year left. If I could bid on overseas jobs, possibly, then I would be able to extend for a two-year or three-year assignment and I would then reach my full Social Security age," she says. "I would make another contribution, perhaps, in a country, and I would do what I love doing."

Question For Clinton

Page is not suing but has been trying to get Clinton's attention at town hall meetings. She has been rehearsing her question.

"My question is, 'Madame Secretary, as you have said this is a great job, you are clearly enjoying being secretary of state. Do you think it is fair that I have to retire being your age and you don't?' " she says. "You know, no. But I haven't had a chance to raise it."

State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley says the department is guided by the Foreign Service Act of 1980, which sets the retirement age but also allows the secretary to give limited extensions. He says the idea is to make sure younger Foreign Service officers have a chance to move up. Crowley says retirees can come back on temporary assignments.

"We look at creative ways of continuing to use these talented people," he says. "We have lots of different programs to do that."

Officers Split On Issue

The American Foreign Service Association, which represents the interests of Foreign Service employees, is calling on the State Department to be more transparent about all of that. Members are still split on the broader issue of retirement, says Susan Johnson, AFSA's president.

"We've heard from quite a number of members who want to see the retirement age raised to 67 to put it in sync with Social Security," she says.

AFSA's annual survey, which went out last fall, showed that member opinion was roughly equally divided on raising the retirement age, she says.

While the professional association looks into the issue, Colton argues in her lawsuit that age discrimination shouldn't be tolerated at all — that there should be no age limit. She calls it a matter of civil rights.

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