Patricia McGuire
University president

Patricia McGuire

President of Trinity Washington University.


Age irrelevance

Q: Sure, Bob Dylan is "the age's iconic singer-songwriter and rock's poet laureate.'' All the same, the Wall Street Journal suggests, he should hang up his hat. The Journal caught Dylan, 69, at a bare ballroom in an Atlantic City casino, his voice a "laryngitic croak'' as people walked out to play the slots. Are there age limits on success? Do you go out at the top of your talents, or do you soldier on, doing what you love?

When Mike Shanahan expressed hopes of finding "a young Donovan McNabb" in the college draft, in the very same press conference where he tried to explain the benching of the real Donovan McNabb, he drove a stake through the heart of every aging athlete trying to eke out a few more years. Are you listening, Brett Favre?

At the same time, I found myself musing: as an employer, if I said out loud that I was looking for a younger version of a star faculty member, I'd probably be in court by the next morning.

Outside of professional sports, where 30 is usually considered the beginning of the end, we have laws protecting employees from age discrimination, even those who bore colleagues rehashing their last Tony Bennett concert. (Those who are most bored might still have Mick Jagger on their Walkman mixtapes.)

For good reason, the law says that we can't force workers to retire just because of their chronological age, a number that has diminishing importance as a guide to professional capacity.

At age 68, Barbra Streisand continues to be a Hollywood power and engaging performer. When he was 78, Joseph Ratzinger became CEO of one of the world's largest organizations; Pope Benedict is now 83 and keeping a vigorous schedule. Incoming New York Public Schools Chancellor Cathleen P. Black is 66, choosing a demanding new career over the lure of retirement. At age 70, outgoing Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi could well have retired, but instead, she won yet another election as the leader of the House Democrats. In an ironic contrast, Representative Patrick Kennedy is retiring from public life at age 43, exactly the age that his famous uncle John F. Kennedy won election as the youngest president of the United States.

What makes it possible for some people to be successful long into their 60's and 70's while others opt out in their 40's?

Certainly, compared to the old industrial age, the nature of most work today is more cerebral than physical. However, being a prominent politician, leader of a school system or church, entertainer or active corporate leader requires a great deal of physical stamina. Staying fit, watching nutrition, maintaining a healthy lifestyle are all crucial factors contributing to professional longevity.

Attitude counts as well. People with youthful, vigorous ideas and interests -- curious, creative, flexible and broad-minded -- often appear to be much younger than their actual chronological ages, while pessimistic, negative people seem much older. Geezerdom is a state of mind, not an age!

Bob Dylan's voice always croaked, and to me, he always seemed very old no matter what his real age might have been. He has never been a lighthearted or frivolous artist; his work is freighted with heavy meaning, with a demeanor to match.

The times, they are definitely a-changin'. I can now download "Like a Rolling Stone" as a ringtone to my cell phone. That, alone, might make Dylan want to retire.

But the fact that people left his concert to go play the slots says a whole lot more about the attention deficits of contemporary life than it says about Bob Dylan. People want instant entertainment, not deep thoughts. But Dylan is so into his own head he may not have noticed the early exits, and I suspect he did not care.

Should Dylan leave the stage?

"The answer is blowin' in the wind..."

By Patricia McGuire  |  December 20, 2010; 12:00 AM ET  | Category:  Success and age Save & Share:  Send E-mail   Facebook   Twitter   Digg   Yahoo Buzz   StumbleUpon   Technorati  
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