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Is 48 Too Old To Be Working?

By Claire Gordon

Baby boomers aren't retiring. Recession-battered savings, and the prospect of a decades-long retirement, have left them clinging to their jobs, keeping our nation's youth out of the workforce and forever stunting the younger generation's career potential.

That's the story we often hear. But that's not the story of Jack Ma, the 48-year-old CEO/billionaire of China's largest e-commerce conglomerate Alibaba Group, who announced Tuesday that he was stepping down in the spring and taking up the mantle of chairman.

He wrote in an email to employees:

I want to encourage our young leaders to step forward to ensure a smooth transition. At 48, I am no longer 'young' for the Internet business. The next generation of Alibaba people are better equipped to manage an Internet ecosystem like ours. I believe they understand the future better than I do.

Although he's a few years shy of 50, Ma is convinced that he no longer has sufficient pluck to steer the ship. "When I was 35, I was so energetic and fresh-thinking," he said, "I had nothing to worry about."

The news comes less than a week after Ma announced the most serious restructuring in his company's 13 years. He decided to break up the group into 25 units, to ensure that it can keep pace with the e-commerce industry. Ma emphasized that the move would keep the management team intact, reported TechCrunch, but in light of Ma's retirement plans, any manager over 50 may suddenly feel a little less than welcome.

Ma has lots of interests to fill up his post-Alibaba decades, as he told Bloomberg Businessweek: tai chi, traditional Chinese medicine, environment protection, and private equity investment, to name a few.

Of course, most Americans don't have Ma's net worth of $3.4 billion (nor do several countries). So most Americans don't have the luxury of retiring as soon as they feel their thoughts lose their freshness. Over half of adults 50 to 64 say that they may delay their retirement, according to a 2009 Pew Research Center poll, and another 16 percent said that they expect to be working until the end of their days. A Wells Fargo study found that 30 percent of middle class Americans said 80 was the new retirement age.

But Silicon Valley isn't like most of America. While younger minds might be more adaptable to the tech world's rapid flux, many in the industry also straight-out discriminate against older workers, preferring the sneaker-wearing wunderkind. It's "100 percent due to the new, young, tech startup mindset," one San Francisco employment attorney told Reuters, noting that he has received many calls from folks who feel like they're the victim of age discrimination -- who are in their early 40s.

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