The Foreign Service Journal, September 2010

T he Foreign Service is aging. Not only are some members staying in longer, but the average ageof entry-levelmem- bers is rising, and a larger number are enter- ing the Foreign Service as a second, or even third, career. AFSA frequently hears from members who support raising the age of mandatory retirement (now fixed at 65) to at least 67, the age at which employees born after 1960 become eligible for full Social Security benefits. Surprisingly, however, AFSA does not appear to have a clear mandate to fight for this. Severalmember surveys conductedwith- in the past year showAFSA’smembers divided almost 50-50 on the issue. For everymember who sees it as amatter of basic fair- ness (and current limits as a form of age discrimination), there appears to be anotherwho likes things fine theway they are, and urges AFSA not to open a “Pandora’s box,” potentially expos- ing the entire FS retirement system to review and possible tin- kering. Those in favor of retaining the current systemnote that, like the military, the Foreign Service benefits from a separate and unique retirement systemcreated in consideration of the special needs andhardships of FSwork. This includes the ability to retire with an immediate annuity at age 50with20 years of service, ear- lier thanmost other federal employees, and the right to an imme- diate annuity if separated for time in class at the FS-1 level. Foreign Service families usually do not have an opportunity to establish the kind of financial and professional base that pro- vides many federal employees in the U.S. with a solid founda- tion for retirement (e.g., a paid-off primary residence, a spouse with a secure job, etc.). For FS members, even more than for most Americans, retirement is the start of a new life, rather than thenext step inanexistingone. Theability toretire earlier is impor- tant to enable that transition. Moreover, pensions are calculatedwith theunderstanding that the highest level of pension is tied to the maximum retirement age. Raise the age, and the pensions of those retiring younger will decrease. Many note that FS promotions are predicated on the idea of a constant attrition fromthe top, and that keepingpeople in longer will slowthe rate of promotions. This has beenState’smainargu- ment against any change. Some are concerned that thehardships of Foreign Service life simply wear people out faster, and make it less likely that a person above a certain age will be fully productive in overseas environments. Those in favor of raising the retirement agedisagree. In their view, the current retirement age forcesmany people out at the height of their professional experience, knowl- edge and productivity. Much of what makes a Foreign Service member effective cannot be taught in school. It comes fromexpe- rience, and it makes no sense to force people out at the peak of gathering that experience. Some consider mandatory retirement to be clear discrimi- nation, andurgeAFSAtoaddress it before a lawsuit forces a com- plete reappraisal of theFS retirement system. Better for thedepart- ment tochoose its timing, andcontrol theprocess, than for apub- lic scandal and court mandate to provoke Congress to do it for us, they say. Many point to the large number ofWhenActuallyEmployed officers, well past themandatory retirement age, who successfully operate in some of the most difficult and hard-to-staff posts, as evidence that age is not a deterrent to effective service. Many employees are concerned that the current retirement age of 65 means that employees born after 1960 will be unable to receive full Social Security benefits upon retiring. Those retir- ing earlier face temporary reductions in overall benefits, making retirement particularly difficult for employees under the “new” (now 26 years old) retirement system. Similarly, they note that Thrift Savings Plan losses and a weak economy force many employees to work longer than they had planned. Proponents of raising the retirement age assert that most of the drawbacks to such amove canbe addressedquite easilywith a little creative thought. For example, they suggest that pensions could still be calculated based on an assumption of retirement at 65. Under that scenario, the maximum payment would be available at that age, but would not increase for those staying in longer. AFSA is eager to hear more from employees about this issue so we can act in a way that best responds to member desires. ❏ FS Members: Good Beyond the Expiration Date? V.P. VOICE: STATE ■ BY DANIEL HIRSCH Much of what makes a Foreign Service member effective cannot be taught in school. S E P T EMB E R 2 0 1 0 / F OR E I GN S E R V I C E J OU R N A L 51 A F S A N E W S