Maggie Kuhn, Claude Pepper and the Repeal of Mandatory Retirement

“Some persons dodder at 30, others at 80, and some pass through life without “doddering” at all. Our concern should be with competency, not age, race, sex or religion” – Representative Claude Pepper, 1986

There was a time for many professions in the United States when a person’s 65th birthday signaled the end of their working days. During the 1960’s and 70’s, approximately 40 to 50% of the American workforce were covered by compulsory retirement laws. These laws were amended in 1978 and raised the age to 70, but in February of 1986, legislation was introduced by Claude Pepper (who was 86 at the time) to ensure these policies would no longer endure in the United States. This weekend marked the 34th anniversary of the passage of the Age Discrimination in Employment Amendments. The amendments removed, with very few exceptions, the previously mandated retirement age allowing the majority of Americans to work as long in their chosen career as they were able to.

Maggie Kuhn and Claude Pepper speaking with each other and co-hosts Hugh Downs (left) and Frank Blair (far left) on the television show “Over Easy” in September of 1980. The discussion was titled “Growing Older: The Next 20 Years.”

From the political side of the aisle, Pepper was considered by many to be a champion of the rights of elder Americans. Maggie Kuhn, the founder of the Gray Panthers, was also a champion for those same Americans. It was due in no small part to her lobbying efforts that the retirement age amendments of 1978 were successfully passed. She believed that young and old adults should be integrated in social justice movements, often underscoring this by saying “Every one of us is growing older.” In the 1970’s and 80’s it was not uncommon to see Pepper and Kuhn working together to promote the legislation and ideals that worked toward this integration.

A letter from Mr. & Mrs. Julius Gordon of Miami, Florida to Rep. Pepper. In it, Mrs. Gordon details her following of Pepper and Kuhn in their efforts for elder Americans.

Speaking a few days after the amendments were signed into law on October 31st, Claude Pepper remarked that “this bill means that for millions of elderly Americans, the blessings of a 70th birthday will not become a death sentence against their working lives. This new las is an important step in guaranteeing the elderly of this nation a fundamental civil right – the right to work as long as they are willing and able.”

A cartoon from the 1980’s by artist Jerry Barrett. Pepper was often depicted as a champion of the elderly in popular media.

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