Mandatory retirement for musicians is a form of prejudice

Mandatory retirement for musicians is a form of prejudice


norman lebrecht

June 04, 2021

Reader Comment of the Day comes from SVM, in the course of a lively debate on age discrimination at the Berlin Philharmonic:

Life expectancy has, on the whole, increased significantly, so it is to be expected that young people will probably have to wait longer to get established in a dream career than they might have done in the past. But, for such a highly competitive profession as music, I think it is fair to say that most musicians do not really “make it” until they are in middle age, meaning that, if forced to “step aside” at 65, they get relatively few years of being able to reap the rewards of decades of preparation and privation (on top of an extended period of costly formal education, many musicians will have foregone more lucrative career paths to enable them to be ready to seize opportunities when they come). Even among famous musicians, it is often the case that the activity for which they are notable was not their main source of income for much of their career, but an activity subsidised by other work (such as teaching… although it is also true that many musicians do jobs in unrelated professions — Philip Glass used to work as a plumber!).

Mandatory retirement ages are an extremely crude form of prejudice that should be utilised only in professions where there are serious safety implications and compelling scientific evidence of a very strong positive correlation between increasing age and a serious decline in the ability to do the job effectively. As a younger musician, I object strenuously to mandatory retirement being justified in my name (or, should I say, in the name of “intergenerational fairness”). Such a policy might actually reduce the work on offer, since it is the older musicians who are often in the best position (by virtue of their reputation, contacts, experience, and means) to create work for themselves and their younger colleagues — I am fortunate to play in an ensemble where the majority of my colleagues (including our director) are 65 or over.

Read on here.



  • Patricia says:

    I hope Glass was a better plumber than he was composer.

  • Hayne says:

    Dear SVM,
    You should know by now there are three politically accepted forms of discrimination today in the West. They are white males , old people and the unborn. That’s right. I said it!

    • Hayne says:

      I forgot to add the new discrimination of unvaccinated people.

      • Amos says:

        You also forgot to mention fascist disinformation puppets who spread conspiracy theories to “earn” a living financed by like-minded peddlers of internet trash.

      • Westfan says:

        I just called for a repair person to come to my home, I told the company I will not have anyone unvaccinated working in my home. If that is discrimination, so be it. The person can choose not to get the vaccine and I can choose not to hire him.

        • Hayne says:

          You know “vaccinated” people shed spike proteins right? So you are protecting unvaccinated people I suppose.
          Also unvaccinated people who have had covid19 are much more immune than vaccinated people.
          It’s institutions that discriminate without evidence which is the problem. That’s why there are many law suites coming down the pike (in the US at least).

          • Amos says:

            As always your science is trash. The immunogenicity of any foreign protein is a function of how/where it is administered and whether it is administered in conjunction with an adjuvant. For instance, orally administered antigen without adjuvant results in suppression not activation. Stick to your handler’s disinformation talking points and leave science to those who deal in data and facts.

          • Hayne says:

            I didn’t know Pfizer was my “handler.”


            Spike proteins can be “shed” by the vaccinated bringing about sickness in unvaccinated children and adults.

          • Hayne says:

            I should add that nobody knows how much or little shedding can occur. That’s what studies and trials are for which take years of research. But here we are…

    • Whinnylittlebitches says:

      Old white males have had a good run in history and the reign hasn’t ended yet. Why play the whinny victimhood card so easily? As for the unborn, does that include the little twinkle of and self-entitlement and in your foggy eyes?

  • Musicman says:

    What about shelving musicians who are past their prime and no longer performing at a level becoming of their engagements? That’s the part that is unfair to younger musicians. If the 65+ musician is still performing at a top level then fine, but if they have turned into an embarrassment, they should not be allowed to continue to take a spot from other, more proficient performers.

    • Phillip says:

      The very same institutions that put away tenured performers based solely on age seem more than happy to engage Conductors, Singers and Instrumental Soloists who are not only beyond an artificial retirement age but also are no longer of high quality… as long as the Box Office is happy.

    • M2N2K says:

      Precisely – which is why retirement age should not be the same mandatory number for all.

    • Political gamesmanship says:

      It can happen in any age!

  • Patrick says:

    Yet conductors can continue performing to a grand old age, which isn’t fair as many 65+ musicians can still play very well! I suppose though, being a conductor is silent, cannot hear their many mistakes…But people never state the Elephant in the Room.

  • Orchestra player says:

    I also don’t agree with mandatory retirement. I believe each person to be an individual case. Some people should retire in their 40s, while I know people in their 70s who are still in great shape. Applying the same rule to everyone doesn’t work.

  • Emil says:

    Musicians are not forced to stop making music at 65, though, nor are they forced to stop working. They can keep on teaching, playing solo, playing small ensemble, freelancing, touring, mentoring, writing, editing, advising, etc.
    And, in Germany, that is far from a musician-centric rule: that’s the case for all civil servants too…including, among others, university professors who find themselves in a similar employment situation (highly specialised, very few permanent but prestigious positions, arguably can continue working long past 65 if they want to, opportunities to work outside the formalised permanent university employment).

    • Hayne says:

      “…that’s the case for all civil servants too…”
      It’s still discrimination based on age.

  • David K. Nelson says:

    I have seen both sides of this issue, in music and elsewhere (speaking as someone who retired early). The common theme is that age is used as a surrogate for diminished or diminishing competence of one sort or another. Since it is arbitrary it is of course a crude surrogate, and rough justice, not a genuine evaluation.

    I have seen people involuntarily retired due to age who were still fully possessed of their powers and abilities and it is therefore sad and unfair and something of a waste.

    I have also seen people involuntarily retired — fired is the better term for it but “retired” is thought to be the kinder and more gentle euphemism — and that is far more painful, far sadder. Not unfair, because it is based on facts, but so sad and seemingly shameful.

    At least the person retired entirely due to reaching an arbitrary age was aware in advance that it was going to happen and could plan for it, and leaves with their head up. Not so the person dumped because they have lost it.

    Airline pilots have a (to me) shockingly young mandatory retirement age. I think we all understand why — in most professions working until you aren’t good at it any more might be messy but tolerable, but while it might be awkward to be at a concert where the conductor or soloist or orchestra member shows that their time is over, we don’t want to be on the flight where the pilot finally demonstrates that he hasn’t got it any longer, do we?

    US Supreme Court justices have no mandatory retirement age and yes there have been some who stuck around way too long into a semi senile dotage. There is a powerful scene in the play The Magnificent Yankee about Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, played on the made-for-TV movie version by none other than Alfred Lunt (and his wife Lynn Fontanne playing his wife!). Early in his career on the court, Holmes had the unpleasant duty — something of a Supreme Court tradition — of visiting a dear friend who is a senior justice on the court and telling him that his mind was no longer up to the job. And the end of the film Holmes, in his 90s, sees that “the visit” is now about to be paid to him.

  • Gustavo says:

    “…professions where there are serious safety implications and compelling scientific evidence of a very strong positive correlation between increasing age and a serious decline in the ability to do the job effectively”

    Some old musicians have had significant safety implications for some young female professionals.

    Though the evidence may not be very scientific.

    • Hayne says:

      “Some old musicians have had significant safety implications for some young female professionals.”
      They start when they’re young my friend.

  • MacroV says:

    The irony in these discussions is that if Daniel Stabrawa were to deign to chime in, he would probably say that it’s the rule that has been in place since he joined the orchestra, he always understood it’s the deal, and it’s time for the younger people to take over.

    Also – he’s not having his violin taken from him; if he chooses, he has many years of playing, teaching, master classes ahead of him.

  • Miko says:

    A mandatory retirement age for music critics might not be such a bad idea.
    Suggestions on a postcard?

  • Anon says:

    If we are talking about German orchestras, I think there is equally an issue with age discrimination against people trying to get a job in the first place. You better win something before you are 30 because invitations to auditions rapidly fade out around that time (even if you already have a job and are just trying to move on to a better ensemble).

  • fflambeau says:

    I do not know of any mandatory retirement age anywhere for conductors and have never heard of one. Lots of older people past 65 still conduct. Herbert Blomstedt is in his 90’s; Bernard Haitink is 92; Neeme Järvi is 83; Edo de Waart is 80; Leonard Slatkin, 76, all are still conducting. This entire column is built on a fallacy.

    And actually, I do think that there should be some sort of “mandatory retirement age” but it should take into consideration individual circumstances and abilities and even different positions; I know that may be difficult.

    All five of the conductors I mentioned above are musical treasures and are still active musically.

  • JimmyL says:

    First of all, if musicians in an orchestra have to retire at 65, why not conductors? That’s discrimination.
    I want to believe that this rule is a friendly reminder that there’s more to life than orchestra life and people should look for some more peaceful music making in their 70s rather than grinding it like they used to do in their 40s.

  • Bratsche Brat says:

    Nonsense, I got a great job in a top orchestra age 26, and have been earning top dollar for over a decade since then. I’m no prodigy. Focus, work hard and you can get a great job well before middle age.

  • M2N2K says:

    A recent comment by Emil above in this thread contains a good response to those who argue that mandatory retirement age for orchestral musicians is needed in order to “give next generation a chance”. Just like their older colleagues to whom Emil was addressing his advice, young instrumentalists can also keep themselves busy “teaching, playing solo, playing small ensemble, freelancing, etc.”. Indeed, plenty of twenty-somethings whom I have known personally through the years have done all or most of this so successfully – so well and so much – that many of them never became interested in pursuing orchestral careers at all. Many people of recent generations prefer the freedom of being able to manage and control their time rather than become slaves to rigid orchestral schedules and related responsibilities.
    Arbitrary age-related limits, i.e. “age discrimination”, are an important part of every reasonable legal system: drugs, alcohol, smoking, driving, marriage, voting, electability to various high governmental positions, child/adult separation for different treatment in sex-related and other legal matters – all of that and more usually have perfectly reasonable but certainly arbitrary age limitations. That is why my objections to mandatory retirement age are not based on the argument that it may be illegal – it isn’t – but because in too many cases it can be and often is grossly unfair and profoundly unwise. Those 70-something musicians who are still better at contributing their playing excellence to their orchestras than at any other activities, whether music-related or otherwise, should be allowed and indeed encouraged to continue doing what they do best for as long as they can maintain their high standards of instrumental mastery and various specifically orchestral skills, including for example quick reaction and good peripheral vision, that are needed to perform well in fine orchestras.

  • BigSir says:

    Ageism is more widespread than racism in the workplace.

  • Musicman says:

    I think a good solution would be to require musicians to reaudition every year to prove that they still have it once they reach age 66. This would allow individual evaluations, and assure that those that can no longer hack it and get let go are of an age to be eligible for Medicare and a pension.

    • M2N2K says:

      This may seem like a reasonable and fair solution but unfortunately it isn’t: playing well at auditions and playing well in normal orchestral situations are two very different things and with age that difference usually increases significantly in favor of orchestral playing because that – not taking auditions, particularly in front of their own colleagues – is what veteran musicians in their late 60s and older have been doing daily for several decades.