How does a society lose respect for experience and age?


In the days since Academe published my essay, “The Monument and the Wrecking Crew: Ageism in the Academy,” which explored the misery of individuals and the high costs to society at large of losing tenure, additional faculty members have written to tell me their formerly hidden stories.

The ways of getting rid of tenured people, comparatively protected from illegitimate expulsions, turn out to be ingeniously painful.

Barbara Serenata, tenured in a Midwestern state university, had been needled into leaving by a chair who asked about retirement at every birthday of distinguished older faculty and deprived them of plum teaching assignments. Sabine Samuely, associate professor in a private Massachusetts graduate school (who, like Barbara, asked that her name be changed), explains the demoralization she and her age peers feel at her university, where this is the third year of offering early retirement incentives. Incentivizing retirement, a widespread practice, may seem fair. But Samuely feels marginalized and unwanted. “Getting rid of everyone who has grey hair makes those who remain highly visible, as people who are overstaying their welcome. It is a disheartening time to be at X. I think this is the tidal wave of the future.”

In terms of telling your age-related story, this feels like the early days of the #MeToo movement. One formerly tenured woman, who thanks me for “giving voice to my story too” adds, “and it hurts to read it.” Because of pain, embarrassment, and helplessness, it takes courage to speak.

Higher education used to be a secure location of respect for aging-into-wisdom, because of its tradition of admiring the expert knowledge of graying professors. But tenure is crumbling, a monument besieged. The percentage of tenured faculty has declined from 45  percent (in 1975) to about 21 percent now (AAUP data). In many of America’s 2,000 higher-ed institutions, respected senior people are replaced by adjuncts—contingent employees, usually young, ill-paid, non-unionized, hired by the course or semester; 61% are women. The 80-year-old institution of tenure is becoming a relic in the encroaching gig economy.

Despite the values taught in their humanities courses, many college presidents mimic other powerful large employers in racing to the bottom in faculty pay and collective rights. Corporation heads and Republican office-holders alike deploy the mean-spirited strategy that I call middle ageism. To justify hostile employment practices, language disparages experience. One man, on NPR of all places, argues, against older faculty members who opt to continue teaching, “A certain degree of churn is healthy and productive [and brings in] fresh blood, fresh ideas, people up-to-date on teaching techniques and research techniques.”

Advocates of healthy “churn”—a form of age shaming—slam excellent people everywhere for being out of touch, uncreative, unproductive, in contrast to the superior young. Not only in high tech but in Hollywood, in factories and on Main Street, in advertising and even medicine, midlife workers are not only beaten down by stereotypes about decline, but relentlessly warned there are “not enough jobs for the young.” The young, of course, start cheaper and may stay cheap as the gig system captures them.

At midlife, long-term unemployed people are less likely to find employment, and then, when “discouraged,” are expressly omitted from official unemployment figures to make the economy look better than it is, which in turn makes them look like failures. Age discrimination destroys self-esteem, ends careers, shatters families. “Over-the-hill” stereotypes cover up the transition from valuable seniority systems to the ill-paid disposable-labor system that is the 1%’s big idea of the future of work for most of us.

New Arguments for Seniority

Higher education is actually only one of America’s long-revered seniority systems. The others—the military, civil-service, unionized public schools—also depend on tenure. It isn’t adequately recognized that these social and economic institutions underwrite respect for aging-past-youth and the value of experience. They show aging positively—as the source of recognized achievements and pay raises, not depreciation and a cascade of demotions.

Through exposure to the tenure system over eighty years, college students in billions of classroom encounters learned subconsciously what aging-over-the-life-course means. They absorbed the message that longevity counts–not just in families that respect elders, but in institutions entrusted with their education. Seniority possesses symbolic power for the millions fortunately still exposed to it. The young need experiences of honored seniority in order to look forward to growing older rather than dreading it.

But now almost every system that retains seniority is being undermined. In states, legislatures starve the colleges and universities. The Trump administration is trying runarounds to defeat federal civil service protections. In unionized public schools, mighty billionaire donors badmouth teachers fighting to control curriculum and working conditions and feed their families.

Anti-ageism makes a magnificent fresh case for tenure, beyond its duty of upholding First Amendment speech by preventing irrational firings. Every worker needs more security and income than the exploitative gig economy provides. Democracy needs seniority to keep intergenerational relations humane. Seniority systems soften other effects of ageism as everyone ascends their ladder of years.

It should be an ethical imperative for any cultural system to value aging. An urgent understanding of the grave losses suffered as these monuments crumble, may lead to battling on behalf of all our surviving age-affirming systems. More than ever, America needs a corps of long-term workers in decent jobs—not working as sub-minimum wage greeters at Walmart—for everyone to look up to, in their own families and in society. This is social philosophy in the service of economic justice. We might yet make the contest between seniority and ageism a winnable fight. Join #MeTooAgainstAgeism

Author Bio:  Margaret Morganroth Gullette, PhD, is the author of Ending Ageism, or How Not to Shoot Old People and a resident scholar at the Women’s Studies Research Center, Brandeis University.