Should older academics be forced to retire?



The University where I currently work has recognised an age imbalance in its workforce, which is skewed towards those over 55. It is now taking active steps to rebalance – including encouraging retirement of aging academics at one end and entry of fresh new talent at the other.

Some may scream about ageism – but is it?

It seems to me that academics in their fifties have led pretty charmed lives compared to the current peripatetic impoverished wannabees trying to get a foothold.

I’m sure it’s true that at many times in their careers it didn’t feel that way to them. In the Eighties and Nineties, many University lecturers must have felt like poor relations while their former school and undergraduate classmates were making money hand over fist. But now they are laughing all the way to the bank as they reap massive superannuation entitlements.

At the same time as these superannuation incomes reach new heights there is an ever growing number of aspiring researchers and lecturers trying to find a chink in the impenetrable glass walls of academia. Many academics in their 50s might feel that they’re not ready to retire yet – but should they be forced out early?

Well, of course, not all of them should.

Most have superb skills and experience that would be a very great loss if they were to retire.

However, there are older academics who are so resistant to change, and so hung up looking backwards at the glory days of their past, that actually they are a real obstacle to Universities adapting to the changed circumstances they find themselves in.

Some academics have failed to notice that the way that they value the world, and think things should be done, is just a legacy of a time that is long gone. Undergraduate and graduate students live in a different world from their elders. Some older academics, on permanent appointments are in a position to resist change, but it’s not an option for the rest of us.

Their resistence can be poisonous.

For example, some advise their PhD students not to take up blogging and social media. They ignore the career benefits and emphasize the dangers in an attempt to discourage change. But the younger generation are not idiots and are often far more media savvy than their elders. Why should they listen?

I can’t understand those over 50’s who hang on when they are clearly hating the way academia has changed.

They were lucky to live through an age when it was possible to have aspirations for an academic career and have a reasonable chance of fulfilling their dreams. And now they get a second bite at the cherry! They have great pension arrangements which means they have the opportunity to spend the next 20-30 years in relative comfort.

Early retirement might give some of these world weary academics a chance to discover who they are, apart from their academic identity. Imagine all that time, just enjoy being alive, healthy and prosperous? So few people in the world have that opportunity.

Why aren’t they beating a path to the exit doors!

I think reluctance to leave as more to do with loss of identity and loss of a voice than finances or principle. Becoming an academic is all about building up your academic reputation and, unlike the corporate world, it’s very a much a personal reputation you cultivate. It’s not so much your job title that counts in academia, but who you are (and to a lesser extent where you are). It’s hard work achieving that reputation and certainly hard work keeping it current in today’s climate of publish or perish; win funding or wither.

It’s no wonder that some older academics fear retirement when their professional identity is completely entwined their personal identity. Some of them must wonder: “Who am I if I’m not Professor/Dr X? Who will listen to me now? Will my opinions still matter?”

Of course the reality for younger wannabee academics, who have spent the last decade or two eking out perilous contract careers, is that they struggle to gain an academic identity, or an academic voice, against the odds. Deep thought and money are the two conditions which need to be met in order to do research – the part of academic work that is most explicitly valued by our universities. Both are difficult to achieve when you are on a series of 3 month teaching contracts and the jobs that allow you to apply for grants have upwards of 200 applicants.

Many in the so called ‘precariat‘ haven’t bought their own homes. They’ve had long periods of financial insecurity and anxiety – and often lots of debt. Those adjuncts/sessions who have managed to hang on will tell you they’ve been able to do so because their partner doesn’t work in academia, or they’ve piggy backed off their parent’s financial wellbeing. Not only is this new generation of academics lacking the asset base of the generation above them, they don’t have a great pension to look forward to. They’ll be working, if they can, into their seventies because they have no choice.

It just seems unfair that members of one generation should have so much and yet still refuse to make way for the generation below. I’m sure many of the younger generation would be happy with half of what their seniors have. The threadbare generation below is so used to ‘making do’ that it’s developed amazing creativity and efficiency in using whatever resources it can get hold of to achieve great things. Just let them have a chance and I think they’d explode into greatness.

The irony is that older academics need not lose their identity or their voice. If they only embraced the online world and social media, they’d quickly realize that they would have more avenues to express their opinions: blogs, Twitter, discussion boards, forums just to name a few. There is more opportunity than ever to develop identity and voice through your writing, if that’s what is most important to you.

Personally, the chance to travel, walk, eat, read, visit, bake, garden to your heart’s content sounds like paradise to me. I don’t know anyone who has retired with a nice pension who isn’t having a wonderful time and wondering how they ever had time to work.

To be honest, this isn’t really just an age issue – it’s an attitude issue. What do you think? Should ageing academics who fear change and stifle creativity in their juniors be forced to retire for the good of us all?