LINDA WERTHEIMER, host:
When are you too old to represent the United States abroad? That question is on the minds of some Foreign Service officers bumping up against the mandatory retirement age. The rule does not apply to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, or to any secretary of state. And it does not apply to ambassadors. But it does to midlevel diplomats, and they are in short supply these days. NPR's Michele Kelemen reports.
MICHELE KELEMEN: 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. Yesterday was her 65th birthday, something she would have liked to celebrate. But in her case, it means the end of a career path she loves.
Ms. ELIZABETH COLTON (State Department Officer): You know, it's not like the age of - one becomes decrepit. In fact, maybe you have more energy - more focused energy.
KELEMEN: Colton seems to thrive on her seven-day-a-week job, spending her birthday visiting flood victims in camps in Karachi. 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.
Ms. COLTON: Yeah, I was a journalist, I was an anthropologist, I was a press secretary, I was a professor. It was a childhood dream that I wanted to be a diplomat as well as a journalist and an adventurer.
KELEMEN: Another former journalist, Diana Page, is currently working at the State Department, assisting foreign reporters in Washington. Fluent in Spanish and Portuguese, she's 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.
Ms. DIANA PAGE (State Department Officer): So I have one more year left. If I could bid on overseas jobs, possibly then I would be able to extend for, you know, a two-year or a three-year assignment, and I would then reach my full Social Security age. I would make another contribution, perhaps in a country, and I would do what I love doing.
KELEMEN: Page is not suing, but has been trying to get the attention of Secretary of State Hillary Clinton at town hall meetings. She's been rehearsing her question.
Ms. PAGE: And my question is: Madam Secretary, as you have said, this is a great job; youre clearly enjoying being secretary of state. Do you think it's fair that I have to retire, being your age, and you don't?
(Soundbite of laughter)
Ms. PAGE: You know - no. But I haven't had a chance to raise it.
KELEMEN: 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 adds, retirees can come back on temporary assignments.
Mr. P.J. CROWLEY (Spokesman, State Department): We look at creative ways of continuing to use these talented people. We have lots of different programs to do that.
KELEMEN: AFSA, which represents the interests of Foreign Service employees, is calling on the department to be more transparent about all of that. Members are still split on the broader issue of retirement, according to the president of the American Foreign Service Association, Susan Johnson.
Ms. SUSAN JOHNSON (President, American Foreign Service Association): 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. AFSA's annual survey, which went out last fall, showed that member opinion was roughly equally divided for or against raising the retirement age.
KELEMEN: While the professional association looks into the issue, Foreign Service Officer 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.
Michele Kelemen, NPR News, Washington.
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