Abilities keep older managers, coaches in game

January 22, 2006|By CHILDS WALKER | CHILDS WALKER,SUN REPORTER

Something about the number startled.

Eighty.

It's an age when most have stopped working and many head to nursing homes. A generation ago, those who reached the mark had cheated fate. But this month, 80-year-old Marv Levy became the newest general manager of the Buffalo Bills.

He isn't the first gerontological wonder in his field. Florida State's Bobby Bowden, 76, and Pennsylvania State's Joe Paterno, 79, coached against one another in this year's Orange Bowl. Jack McKeon managed the Florida Marlins to a World Series title at age 72.

But Levy was hired at an age when few have worked in sports at all. The move by 87-year-old Bills owner Ralph Wilson drew cheap jokes about the "Sunshine Boys." Even positive reviews said Levy would bring "wisdom" to Buffalo rather than, say, spark or innovation.

Far from being an anomaly, Levy represents the advance line in a revolution, say experts on aging. Baby boomers, the 20th-century's greatest catalyst for sociological change, are turning 60. And improved medical science is expected to keep them alive through the heart troubles and cancers that killed their parents.

At the same time, fertility rates are declining.

So the old shall inherit the Earth, or at least more of it than in the past.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, people 65 and older will account for 19.6 percent of the U.S. population in 2030, up from 12.4 percent in 2000. The number of people 80 or older is expected to increase from 9.3 million in 2000 to 19.5 million in 2030.

Discussion of the trend tends to focus on the enormous cost of caring for an older and presumably sicker society. But experts on aging say 80- and 90-year-olds will be doing things that were thought impossible to do at that age a generation ago.

"That's the future you're going to see with the aging of the baby boomers," said Paul Hodge, director of Harvard's Generations Policy Program.

Hodge thinks that in 20 years, retirement as we know it will be obsolete because people in their 70s and 80s will have the ability and economic need to work. And the elderly are especially likely to hang on to high-paying, sought-after jobs, such as those in sports.

"It's being pushed back now because there is an understanding that people are in better condition and that they're not looking forward to retirement at age 55, 60 or 65," said Hubie Brown, who at 69 was hired as coach of the Memphis Grizzlies after a 16-year hiatus from the National Basketball Association.

In the corporate world, high-profile business executives usually retire in their 60s. Even those who graduate to coveted seats on company governing boards usually move on at 70.

But that is changing, too, experts say.

Sumner Redstone, 82, has held on as chairman and chief executive officer of media conglomerate Viacom Inc. for almost 20 years, taking the helm at age 64 in 1987. David Oreck, founder of the vacuum company Oreck Corp., does TV and radio spots as spokesman for his company at 82, in addition to being an avid runner, pilot and motorcyclist. Jack Welch, the celebrity CEO of General Electric, retired in 2001 at 65 but has gone on to write several best-selling business advice books.

John Challenger, CEO of Challenger, Gray & Christmas Inc., a human resources consulting company based in Chicago, said more executives, like all employees, are holding on to their jobs and high-profile lives well into the twilight years.

"There used to be a cliff formula, where when you hit 65 you'd fall off the cliff and you were out of the workplace no matter how talented you were or how much good you were doing the company," Challenger said.

It is perhaps unsurprising that sports would offer a proving ground for the aged and able. Athletics have always provided highly visible battlefields for the forces of prejudice and progress. Joe Louis and Jackie Robinson preceded the civil rights movement by a generation. Female tennis stars stood near the front lines of the women's movement as they sought respect and equal pay in the 1970s.

Old coaches and general mangers don't face such virulent prejudice, but when their teams hit the skids, they hear the inevitable questions about being set in their ways or out of touch with younger athletes.

"The individual that's responsible for you getting that opportunity, that person must have courage because until you get it done, they're going to be criticized and put under the microscope," Brown said.

Despite such skepticism, Hodge said, he is not surprised to see hints of the trend in sports.

"There's not as much of the age bias you might find in the normal workplace," he said. "If you can win, they'll want you, and experience can help you win. I think it's great."

Other gerontologists say that cases such as the hiring of Levy might become more frequent but are unlikely to become common because of age discrimination and because many people still want to stop working in their early 60s.

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