The federal workforce is older on average. Almost 30 percent (635,397) of employees are older than 55, while 8.1 percent (176,805) of employees are younger than 30. By comparison, in the private sector, 23 percent of the workforce is younger than 30. Every single agency has fewer employees younger than 30 today than they had in 2010.

The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission earlier this year issued a report on workers age 40 and over in the federal workforce with details regarding pay disparities, the proportion of older workers on staff, complaints of age discrimination, and how this group compares to workers in the private sector.

The report by the EEOC’s Office of Federal Operations found that the federal government – the nation’s largest employer with about two million workers – generally outperforms the private sector in diversity for this cohort of workers.

For example, employees 40 and over had greater representation in the federal sector (72%) than in the non-federal civilian labor force (54%), and was more diverse -- most race and national origin groups were represented in the federal government at rates equal to or greater than the CLF.

Researchers found disparities in aspects of the federal workforce 40 and over: men were a greater percentage than women and pay gaps existed between women and men and among different race and national origin groups. Also, the report found that federal employees on average earned more as they aged, with earnings peaking at 65, suggesting that labor is not undervalued as people get older.

“It’s an established fact of life that more older Americans are working longer, and in larger numbers than ever before,” said Dexter Brooks, associate director of the EEOC’s Office of Federal Operations. “The fact that more mature workers are contributing their experience and talents to their employers is good for the country.”

President Joe Biden, the oldest person ever to assume the office, issued an Executive Order on Diversity, Equity, Inclusion, and Accessibility in the Federal Workforce, calling for the federal workforce to be a model employer for older Americans. The order includes “individuals who belong to communities that may face employment barriers based on older age” as a potentially underserved group needing attention.”

Today, mandatory retirement in federal government exists only for a handful of physically demanding roles, including firefighting and some law enforcement jobs. But even that age limit can be waived if the head of the agency really needs that person to stay on a little longer, says Reg Jones, a charter member of the senior executive service and a longtime Federal Times columnist.

What are the rules on federal workforce retirement?

Legally, the government can’t force workers to retire strictly due to their age.

“If you’re going to separate somebody, you only have a narrow range of choices under the law,” Jones said in an interview. “For example, misconduct, unacceptable performance. And it’s also possible to do that if somebody is medically unable to perform. They can’t do the job.”

But while the law is on an older employee’s side, that doesn’t mean they won’t have a superior who begins subtly encouraging them to retire.

At times, Jones says, bosses may try to hasten an employee’s departure by siphoning off their responsibilities. He’s spoken with federal workers who have found themselves in a job with little or nothing to do, though they were still getting paid.

Some people are willing to ride out a few years that way to forestall retiring, he says. They may even be pleased.

“But others get bored and say, ‘I don’t want to do this anymore,” Jones said. “I’m gonna find a way to get out.’”

In other cases, an agency is reorganized and an employee finds that their job is being eliminated.

“Usually it involves a larger organizational shift, and then everybody involved gets a notice,” Jones says. “If you’re in one of those positions that won’t exist, there are Reduction in Force regulations that govern what happens to you after that.”

One possibility, he says: “You could be moved to another position where you would ‘bump’ another employ with less tenure, less standing, and take over that job. Or you could end up at a lower level.”

In cases of reorganization, older employees with more tenure may have an advantage: “It’s only the ones who are left over who don’t have a place to go and don’t have the tenure to hold on that are going to be separated,” Jones said.

What to do if you feel pressure to retire

Another benefit to older employees: Bosses generally don’t want to do the complicated paperwork involved in separating someone. In many cases, a supervisor will work with an employee to ensure they’re in a job that continues to suit their needs and strengths.

“It all depends on your boss, and it depends on your willingness to open up and say, ‘Hey, boss, I really need to talk to you,’” says Jones. “If you get that kind of relationship, it’s amazing how things can get fixed.”

If you’re committed to working beyond typical retirement age, Jones says, “the main thing is continue to do your job. Do the best that you can. And don’t accept pressure just because somebody would like to fill a space.”

It was decades ago, but Jones said he vividly remembers the moment he ran into a friend who worked in a federal agency’s general counsel’s office.

Like Jones, the man was a longtime government employee. He loved his work. But this man was reaching what was then considered the ancient age of 70, and mandatory retirement had been looming ahead of him like a storm cloud.

The Age Discrimination in Employment Act had been enacted in 1967, prohibiting discrimination against workers age 40 and older. But it wasn’t until 1986 that Congress voted to abolish mandatory retirement at age 70.

For Jones’ friend, that reprieve came just in time.

“I met him on the street,” Jones remembers, “and he said, ‘Well, now I don’t have to retire!’”

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