"Very few people actually want to stop working," said Peter Cappelli, professor of management at the University of Pennsylvania's Wharton School. "What they would like to do is phase out, slow down, back up, and not work so long."
Benedict didn't have that option. He already was 78 when he took the job in 2005, the oldest man to become pope since Clement XII, who also was 78 when he was elected. (He died 10 years later, in 1740.)
Individuals need to honestly evaluate their work capabilities, particularly in a large and important organization, Cappelli said.
"I think they have a bigger obligation to move out if they cannot handle the job because there is so much more at stake," he said.
A strategy for many people - though perhaps not the pope, who counts "vicar of Christ" among his job titles and has no equal within the church hierarchy - might be to ask a trusted peer to assess performance.
"The problem is we rationalize our own performance to make us feel good," Cappelli said.
Companies should be more creative in designing reduced work for employees nearing retirement, he said, but younger managers typically don't make the effort, in part, because they are uncomfortable supervising older people.
In the United States, firing someone simply on the basis of age is illegal, Cappelli said.
In any organization, succession planning matters, said Steven N. Pyser, assistant professor of human resources at Temple University's Fox School of Business.
The Roman Catholic Church, Pyser said, has a succession procedure - as does the U.S. presidency - that helps provide continuity and confidence.
"It has to be managed step by step," he said. "When you think of how much attention was paid to replacing our Eagles coach - a job nowhere near as important as replacing the leader of 1.2 billion Catholics.
"Succession planning is an art and science, and if you don't have an agenda and a timetable, it can be mayhem."
When it's time to step down, graciousness is important, even if the parting is bitter, said Nicole Williams, career expert at LinkedIn, the social-networking site.
Comments made in the heat of the moment can detract from years of successful career-building, Williams said:
"I tell everyone that your first week and your last week in the job are the two most important weeks."
Contact Jane Von Bergen at firstname.lastname@example.org, @JaneVonBergen on Twitter, or at 215-854-2769. Read her workplace blog at www.philly.com/jobbing.