Should older academics be forced to retire?

This post was written by an ANU colleague, in their mid 40’s, who would prefer to remain anonymous – for good reason.

The post articulates the inter-generational resentment brewing inside our universities. It expresses sentiments I have heard often from my peers in their 30’s and 40’s in the tea rooms of academia. Rarely however, does this resentment find its way into the public sphere where it can be discussed and debated.

You may disagree with this post – or violently agree with it. I’ll be interested to hear what you think in the comments.

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?

Screen Shot 2014-09-10 at 6.57.37 amIt 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?

Update: when it published, this post caused a storm of controversy on Twitter and in the comments. There were some, I think valid, criticisms that the post sets up senior academics as the ‘bad guys’, when in fact systemmic issues are to blame. Kate Bowles, from the ‘Music for Deckchairs’ blog and a thoughtful critic of higher education wrote a follow up and rebuttal to this post, which I encourage you to read.

Second update: I’d also draw attention to Tim Klapdor’s excellent post on the ‘Trope of the Older Academic’ which builds on Kate’s critique and implicitly criticises me for putting this post out there in the first place. Fair enough! But I think it’s provoked a fast and useful dialogue, which is one of the best things about blogging.

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96 thoughts on “Should older academics be forced to retire?

  1. Jennifer Eagleton says:

    But what about people who get PhD’s after 50 like me?
    Maybe if academics “over 50” who are not doing good work should go maybe no academic then should gave tenure?

    • Amanda Michelle Jones says:

      I fear you have missed the point here.

      The author is not saying that 50 is some magical age at which people become incompatible with academia. The point is that these are people who have *already been in academia* some 20-30 years. Perhaps this will be you at age 75 or 80, should you stick around that long.

  2. jgriffen says:

    Ah, Jennifer my thoughts exactly – although not as junior in age as our peers – we are considered junior faculty – I am deeply steeped in social media – more so than some of my younger counterparts. While I appreciate the vison of taking long walks, eat & read to my heart’s content – who is to say I want to spend my later years that way – perhaps engaging with younger scholars and my research are what keeps me vital and young – I hear your frustration but I fear your young age makes “50” seem old and paints us baby boomers with too broad of a brush.

  3. Victoria says:

    I don’t agree with getting rid of academics based on age, but rather think that academia should use performance-based models as they do in the business sector.

    What I find since starting my PhD is that there is a significant lack of accountability for senior academics. Some treat students rudely and dismissively – and as the author states- some don’t even embrace the current technology that can improve the research process!

    What if we had 360 degree feedback with academics – getting input from their students as to their performance? What if all academics had performance metrics and were accountable to their students to retain their positions? I think you would find that those academics who felt the pressure to actually perform, keep up with technology and be accountable would leave on their own accord.

    So, the metric should be performance and not age- personally, I won’t have my PhD until next year when I’m 53, but I embrace technology and believe in accountability. I know others who are 15 years younger than I am who have less modern ideals than mine.

    So, let’s focus on changing the broken structure of academia, as I believe this will make way for us new academics.

    • Thesis Whisperer says:

      For what it’s worth, I tend to agree. But performance can be affected by a range of factors, not least of which is position in a hierarchy and other, more nebulous cultural factors. Put simply, some are in a better position to perform than others. It’s a very complex problem for sure.

      • victoriasfetish says:

        Yes, but this is how businesses run, and certainly academia is a business.

        A flatter (hierarchical) structure with more performance-based metrics (including student satisfaction and colleague feedback) works in business taking in account position and nebulous cultural factors.

        We should look to successful corporations, adopt their “best practices” and run our universities the same way.

        The problem isn’t with extraneous factors as much as an unwillingness for academia to make the cultural shift.

      • Amanda Michelle says:

        Replying to victoriasfetish below, as she doesn’t have a reply link…

        My initial response to this is an emphatic NO. Although universities are doing this whole neoliberal-run-like-business thing, education is NOT (should not be) a business! I don’t disagree that there are some practices we can borrow but trying to run academia like a corporation will only lead to more trouble than we already have right now (adjunctification, etc.)

      • Rebecca says:

        I find the statement that “academic is a business” a very sad one. It sort of misses the point of education for the greater good. If higher ed were to operate strictly as a business we would have a lot of engineering schools and not very many art schools. Humanity needs some people to explore research topics strictly for random interest – as it is through this that we might find a random connection that helps solve a more complex problem – academic as a business doesn’t support research that is not profit driven.

    • Sarah Thorneycroft says:

      For one, most universities do have student review of teaching processes, to which academics are held (IMHO far too doggedly) accountable. The problem with this is that you are judging someone’s performance on the opinions of a non-expert reviewer and most student review processes are extraordinarily fallible. I don’t disagree that there is poor performance around the place and that accountability is often rather lacking, but student-generated performance metrics are not the solution.

      • Amanda Michelle says:

        I want to agree with you here… Except that student satisfaction is kind of a big deal when your goal is student retention and academic development. I do think that the way student evaluations are done could be improved,however. How is it that we are teaching survey methods and using such terrible surveys for professor evals?

        Then again, I have taken MANY classes with tenured profs over the past few years who don’t bother with evals, so i also think something needs to happen with fixing that.

  4. Jodie says:

    “Should ageing academics who fear change and stifle creativity in their juniors be forced to retire for the good of us all?”

    If this is the criteria for who should be moved on, then yes, absolutely. But the problem, in my opinion, is how to operationalise those criteria. At what point has an academic ‘aged’ enough to be considered for forced retirement? Do we have a cut off age where everyone gets assessed? Then, what are the specific indicators that a person ‘fears change’ or ‘stifles creativity in their juniors’? How many of those indicators does a person need to demonstrate before we move them on? Who judges whether they actually ARE demonstrating those indicators, and who judges the judges on whether they are impartial or not?

    In theory, I agree wholeheartedly that anyone (academic, corporate, older, younger, in between) who stifles creativity in others, and who fears change to the extent that they refuse to accept the progress of their organisation or take on feedback, should be under scrutiny and possibly even forcibly moved out of their organisation, if it comes to that. But how do you make it happen in a way that is fair? And further, if those that you are moving out are all over a certain age, how do you avoid a public and media backlash that would surely damage the reputation of Australia’s universities, both with the Australian public and with the many countries and cultures in the world in which the top ends of hierarchies are strongly related to age?

  5. martindavies says:

    I think Paddy McGuiness came up with the line that ‘the baby boomers are the only generation in human history that managed to steal off both their parents and their children’. But your target is misdirected. The aim should be at those appointed on full tenure (often with no PhD) after the Whitlam-era expansion of the sector, which would put them in their late 60s-early 70s. It’s all relative, but I can tell you that those in their 50s didn’t exactly have an easy time either.

  6. dguzys says:

    As an almost 52 year old PhD candidate, I think leading with the sentiment of the final paragraph would have provided a stronger claim for this argument not being ageist! The repeated references to a specific age bracket, or ‘the older generation’ is ageist! The real argument is about attitude, or what I have dubbed ‘Ivory tower syndrome’.

    A significant contributor to the development of such attitudes reflects processes which facilitate a disconnect with the wider, some might argue ‘real’ world. Accepting, and at times promoting, a career pathway from student to academic, without the benefit of ‘real life’ experience insulates thinking and leads to the development of ‘ivory tower syndrome’. Vacationing or short visits to the outside world are not sufficient to challenge thinking and the development of a problematic academic attitude. Such academics are a product of this system, and it is the system which requires review rather than focusing on the age bracket of the academic.

  7. Perpetua says:

    I am sorry to read the poster’s obvious frustration but it seems to me that the post is based on a lot of assumptions about why certain academics continue working and about their alleged “charmed lives”. It is also seems to be based on a good dollop of self-pity and a strong sense of entitlement — ‘they’ve had their turn, now it’s mine.’ Part of the reality is that there are an increasing number of people achieving PhDs but fewer jobs available. And anyway, how many people actually achieve their dream job whether in academia or elsewhere? Maybe it’s an opportunity to use the “amazing creativity and efficiency” claimed to make other opportunities for yourself?

    Note here, I am not an academic nor is my partner or anyone in my family, but I am a doctoral candidate well past the ages you refer to. It is academics considerably younger than myself who have attempted to stifle my creativity in my work so please do not make that huge assumption about “ageing academics.” I object to what seems to be the basis of your article — that older academics should be put out to pasture because you seem to believe that you know what is best for them. And you say your post is not ageist!

    • martindavies says:

      Yes, there are fewer jobs available. But part of the reason for that is that there are a lot of (unproductive) older academics — appointed in the 1960s — on full tenure which are essentially holding up a natural inter-generational change. While I agree this should not, in itself, be grounds for a ‘sense of entitlement’, it is also true that this is not something that happens in other industries. Yes, you are right: the author should not sit about griping, and use his/her skills to find other avenues of employment. But it seems to me that this is a unique problem in academia. Part of the reason for it is heavily unionised labour. Short of restructuring an entire department, it is virtually impossible to budge a senior academic from their jobs, whether they are productive or not. Where does this happen in other industries?

    • Rebecca says:

      You have me wondering if this is really a problem with the idea that people need “careers” rather than “jobs”? The higher focus on career oriented work has made the younger generations less happy, and has also flooded the “career” jobs with a lot of talent (and a lot of mediocrity).

      I do have to say that I took a lot of issue with targeting an “age” there are a lot of older PhD students (a lot of whom are women who go back to school later in life) – so targetting a specific age bracket is not only ageist, it is also inherently sexist.

      Part of my frustration with the current state of academia is that the opportunities that are available involve a lot more luck that talent. You need to be in the right place and the right time and know the right people to get the opportunity – which can be very difficult for the younger generation – but is also frustrating as you get older – since talent is only a small variable in the equation.

  8. Tori Wade says:

    Hi, I was 59 when I got my PhD, less than a year ago now, so I’m wondering what your attitude is towards me? I’m not looking for tenure and am happy with a series of short term projects provided they are interesting and worthwhile. I think the problem is not older people per se, but the lack of stable opportunities for younger people, which is a system and structural problem, not an individual issue.

  9. Thesis Whisperer says:

    Just to be clear, it’s not ‘my’ attitude. I published because it’s one I hear a lot, casually. I think we should confront it an have a serious conversation. The real problem (in my view) is structural inequity in the workforce. Unfortunately that disadvantages ‘new’ entrants – regardless of age.

    • Perpetua says:

      Hi Inger, I think it’s clear that it’s not your attitude. I agree that it’s an issue that needs serious conversation and that the real problem is structural inequity. If we can make clear arguments on the basis of such structural inequity, rather than on assumptions, we might make some headway. Thanks to you and the poster for opening the conversation.

    • Peter Bentley says:

      I agree absolutely. Many of the complaints in this article and elsewhere relate to structural inequality and unequal pay for equal work. The most blatant is the super (9% defined contribution vs 17% vs defined benefit), but it also relates to job security whereby new entrants are placed on casual or rolling fixed-term contracts (call it the core-periphery model). If all academics were on comparably contingent employment contracts, it would be fairer than the current system because at least the decision to keep or get rid of someone would not be dependent upon their contract type. However, even if all academics were on comparable contract types (note I am not referring to salary or rank), it would still be inequitable due to experienced academics having had the opportunity to develop their capacities.

    • Rebecca says:

      Another issue the academic system is that it disadvantages anyone with non-academic experience. 10-15 years of industry experience counts for nothing. It is completely discounted in the hiring process, but also in promotion and ranking.

  10. M-H says:

    I have recently completed my PhD at the age of 62. I am shocked that you think people in their 50s should retire – I could understand the argument if it were people in their late 60s, but 50s? That is only ten years older than you are now – do you seriously think you will be ready to leave paid work in ten years? And, see my last paragraph, how is their super going to stretch for another ten years if they are not still adding to it?

    My experience of working in academic support – which stretches back more than 20 years in two countries – is that there are mean people and generous people, lazy people and hard working people, people who embrace technology and people who abhor it. And guess what? In my decades of workplace experience before that it was exactly the same. There is a particular problem with academia at the moment, which I could argue has been the result of allowing too many people to do PhDs with the idea that they would get a job in academia. I would like to see all Unis explain to incoming candidates that there is a range of careers that people with PhDs can enter, and academis may not be the most lucrative or even the most satisfying – I certainly I don’t see people in industry, the public service or the corporate world whingeing about their workplaces as much as academics do.

    Also, I can’t let this go: Many people in their 60s may not have as much super as you might think. Although they may have been paying into it for about 20 years (compulsory super was established in the early nineties), if predictions are true it may have to last them until they are over 90. So even if I had $500,000, which I would have if I had worked at an Australian Uni for my present wage for 20 years (and I haven’t done that so I have no-where near it), I don’t fancy living on what is essentially 5 years salary for the next 30 years. Even if I had $1M, it would still only be ten years salary, which, without a mortgage I might reasonably be able stretch to 20 comfortable years. Remember that the longer we work and accumulate super, the less of your future taxes we will have to use. So, it’s not as simple as it might seem.

    • Kat says:

      Yes, even as someone in their mid 30s who has only just started ongoing FT work I wouldn’t want to retire in my 50s! I have friends/colleagues who have been part of the precariat for 15 years or more and are in their mid 50s. Definitely not ready to retire.

      There are real problems with the way academia operates but in my view it really isn’t that older people won’t retire and therefore the younger can’t get jobs. I saw a department in my area where almost all the academics were around 60, they all retired within 2-3 years of one another and no new jobs came from it, only an increase in sessional positions and then the university ‘downsized’ the department. It really isn’t as simple as ‘one out, one in’.

      Also I have seen programs to encourage early retirement where the people who chose retirement were the great senior academics, who really nurtured new talent and were great teachers, but were sick of the uni bureacracy and not so clawingly ambitious as to be bothered hanging on.

  11. Anonymous, overworked junior academic says:

    It is not age that is the problem per se. It is the differential standards applied to the entry into academia and ongoing performance of academics hired in the ‘glory days’ versus those academics now trying to gain entry to permanent employment or gain promotion within tertiary institutions. The hypocrisy of this double standard is what angers the newer generation of academics.
    A couple of concrete examples from my own institution where I have a permanent position at a junior level:
    1. In a recent round of external hiring for level B positions, a committee of senior (level C-E) academics, 3/4 of whom did not have PhDs and a track record of A/A* publications, sat down with the pile of CVs and did not even consider any applicant without a PhD and a track record of A/A* publications.
    2. There are academics at B/C/D level in my faculty who either do not publish or publish one mediocre paper every few years. Their jobs are apparently safe.
    3. A new innovation in employment categories in my institution is a teaching-intensive one year contract paid at Level A. These poor exploited souls teach 18 hours a week for 3 trimesters. They have no time to publish and get off the treadmill into a teaching/research job. They are paid less than people hired in the 80s/90s who teach 12 hours a week at most, and also do not publish.
    4. The burdensome governance roles in my faculty are supposed to be held by level C-D-E, but are most often held by A-B because the senior staff refuse to fill the roles.
    In essence, many (not all, of course) of those hired a decade or more ago are not required to meet the same entry criteria as new hires, nor are they required to have the same productivity.
    My opinion on how to resolve this double standard is to issue performance warnings and then commence a retrenchment process within a fair timeframe. This has nothing to do with age and everything to do with equality and performance.

    • M-H says:

      I think you have an overly simplistic idea of what this would mean in reality. It was tried here at Sydney Uni two years ago; about 30 academics (from a staff of 3000) were advised they would be offered redundancy as their work was not meeting (low!) performance guidelines for publication. We had to endure months of strikes, and there are still many people who can’t even think about the Vice Chancellor without feeling stomach-churning anger. And I’m talking about younger staff, people who felt incredibly protective of the staff who were ‘fingered’. It hasn’t solved any of the problems you mention, which are real but ‘wicked’ and possibly insoluble in reality.

      • Peter Bentley says:

        The reality is that very few academics are made redundant, but when they are, there is a news story about it According to the HR benchmarking reports from 2012, Involuntary University Initiated Turnover was, on average, 0.35%. In other words, one in every 250 academics is sacked or made redundant each year. This compares with a fixed-term expiration rate (i.e. contract not renewed) of 7.3%, or about 1 in 14. My gut instinct is that fixed-term contracts are used as a rolling probationary period in order to avoid the regulation of involuntary redundancies and sackings (and associated bad press).

    • Martin Davies says:

      These points are well-put. The focus becomes on the degree of productivity, and not age per se. (Although, as you also make clear, there IS a bunch of under-qualified, unproductive older academics holding up intergenerational change — which, of course, is the point of the article). ‘Age’, whilst not in itself a *necessary* condition of the present academic employment crisis, is a *sufficient* cause of it.

  12. M-H says:

    Also, guys, we don’t have a tenure’ system in Australia. If we did it would be even more difficult to make people redundant as tenure literally means a job for life. Australian academics are employed as ‘continuing’, which means they still have to meet perfomance guidelines – at least in theory. The problem of tenure in the US is different, and perhaps even more intractable.

    • scholarhobbit says:

      And the people who should be holding academics accountable for performance guidelines are (in my experience) often also not meeting reasonable performance expectations. If they held the people they (nominally) supervise accountable, a light might be shone on their own performance.

  13. Holly Doel-Mackaway says:

    Hi there,

    This is a thought provoking article. Initially I thought ‘oh no here we go more bagging of older workers’ (not that I would say anyone in their 50s is ‘older’). People in their 50’s are really at the prime of their working life, often without the pressures of their younger years in terms of building a career concurrently with raising a family. They may also still be young enough that they do not have elderly parents to care for as well. For these reasons and more, I believe people in their 50’s are well positioned to make meaningful contributions in the workplace.

    The essence of what I took from the article was that academics in their 50s and 60s have loads of money so why not stay at home and garden and make way for younger academics? Sounds nice, probably though, what many retired academics would like to do is stay at home and read, and possibly continue to write. I am new to academia, yet already addicted to the privilege of reading, thinking and writing. The article suggests that why not just do that and get paid through their lucrative superannuation and make way for younger academics (such as myself) to then more easily find work? If academics in their 50s and 60s retired this would leave a vacuum of experience. It is taking longer now for people to establish themselves as academics, and those in their 30’s (like myself), can add value yet also benefit greatly from more experienced academics as mentors.

    With increasing class sizes, it is not ‘older’ academics who are blocking new academics from entering academia. A cultural shift in the way academia is structured needs to take place. This includes many changes, including an examination of the role people with industry experience bring to academia. As an aspiring academic with 17 years industry experience, the thought of starting from the bottom again is not only disheartening, but ignores the value my field experience brings to the university, to teaching and how this is linked to the generation of ideas upon which my writing is based. Scholarship is at the core of academia, and the core of good scholarship is sound thinking. Sound thinking is often generated from analysis of field or industry experience in concert with knowledge arising from literature. Academia favours career academics, and gives little value to newcomers to academia with field experience. For what it is worth I think this is wrong, and is one of the many reasons why new academics are not being employed. I don’t think it is older workers preventing newcomers to academia.

    Thanks for the opportunity to comment.


  14. scholarhobbit says:

    Other industries manage to counsel/warn/manage the performance of staff who are not meeting clearly communicated performance expectations. Academia is a public institution/s using public money. Isn’t it even more important that we have accountability for performance and how that public money is spent?
    I am also curious about what might be perceived as a conflict of interest within the NTEU – junior academics carry an unfair proportion of the workload in many faculties, whilst senior colleagues are better paid and have lower performance expectations. Why would the NTEU protect the senior academics at the expense of the junior? I don’t have answers to these questions but I am curious what other people might suggest. You are right it is a properly wicked sort of problem.

  15. Thesis Whisperer says:

    Can I take a moment to thank you all for the generous and thoughtful comments above? Some of us disagree, but I am impressed how respectfully we are doing that. Your thoughtful comments and recognition of the complexities of the situation have created much food for thought.

    I did worry for a moment there that publishing this post was ill thought out and would only stir up more resentment. But I should have had more faith in the Thesis Whisperer audience.

    We can move the debate on from a sterile generation v generation issue to a genuine thinking through of the problems of structural inequality and workplace tensions in academia.

    I will definitely write a follow up based on the dialogue here.

  16. Susanna says:

    Well I am in that older age bracket doing my PhD and don’t expect anything. I am doing it for my own fulfilment. This argument is not just confined to academia. Not all baby boomers have lots of super or other wealth that they have ‘stolen ‘ . Personally I am sick of the assumptions made about baby boomers who are after all responsible for so many inventions and progress that all generations benefit from. Merit-based assessment of performance is important rather than lumping all older people into a group that shod be happy to walk, bake and generally get out of the way. Bad attitude indeed.

    • Peter Bentley says:

      I agree that merit-based assessment is the fairest approach, but one must recognize that it is easier for experienced academics to achieve performance thresholds than inexperienced ones. It also adds complexity to the argument because research performance and age/experience are positively correlated, so it would be a bad decision to arbitrarily target older academics when this group tend to be more productive.

  17. Anonymous says:

    As a now academic who joined academia in my late 40’s, I am compelled to scream – ‘don’t pigeon hole everyone over a certain age’. I am side-lined often because I have not spent my career in academia, but feel I came to the university with a wealth of real-world knowledge that is not well respected. We all have our issues and struggles, I empathize with my younger colleagues, but also see some of the wisdom coming from the older profs.

  18. Sarah Thorneycroft says:

    I think we are asking the wrong question here, if the focus is supposed to be ‘what is preventing younger academics from having a larger presence’. The question should be ‘what is taking up resources that would otherwise be used to create continuing positions for junior academic staff?’, and older academics is only part of the answer to that, and perhaps not even a particularly significant part. What I see across the sector is huge expenditure on whim projects (complete with an array of project managers on executive salaries), an endless stream of consultants brought in to do work internal staff could have done for a tenth of the price, poor decision-making on technology implementation (at massive cost) and so on and so forth, leaving very little budget left over to invest in the core business of teaching and research. Not to mention policy decisions and other issues affecting the structure of teaching itself. I am far more concerned about that than a few 50+ academics drawing down a level E salary. If I had any faith that the positions vacated by retired academics would be retained and filled 1:1 with younger academics my answer might be different, but too often I see faculties jumping at the chance to dump a permanent position from the budget and fill it with casuals instead.

    • jumping at the chane to be anon this time! says:

      Spot on. My university manages to find obscene amounts of money for external consultants and executive vanity projects while teaching and research remain monstrously underfunded. The chronic problem of only issuing teaching contracts at the very last minute, often weeks after semester has already begun, is nowhere even near being addressed. If/when the old guard do retire, the university will jump at the chance to discontinue the positions, and either cut course offering even further or just offer more last-minute, barely-funded casual positions. They’ll probably even appoint a business consultant as a new Deputy Vice Chancellor for Research Flexibility to oversee the process and sell it to us as yet more evidence of the institution’s international excellence…

    • September says:

      Absolutely! This is a ‘be careful what you wish for’ situation. The unit I work for is currently under review. Heaps of time and money is being spent on this process …. glossy publications, external consultants, working groups set up in which colleagues end up competing against one another. In our case the suggestion is to appoint more ‘generalists’ so I don’t think these will be people with PhDs. And as you say, there is apparently always money for whim projects and managerial appointments – whole new business units set up – but it’s very hard for any academic department to argue for a new academic appt – especially a tenured one.
      On another note, I’d be curious to know what would happen if staged voluntary redundancy was used more as a process.
      I also find it interesting how infrequently unions have been mentioned in this debate – wonder how many younger participants are union supporters.

  19. Jennifer says:

    The argument advanced here is of a self-serving nature. An academic actively engaged in worthwhile research (i.e. for the public good as opposed to personal good), teaches with integrity and genuine concern for his/her students, and is a supportive colleague, administratively efficient is surely one to value, regardless of age. To assume younger academics are no less selfish, flawed and of limited value than anyone else is silly.

  20. Teenyacademic says:

    I think overworked junior academic, and some others has a point, as does the original poster.
    This issue isn’t about age per se, but about entrenched privilege and an unwillingness to help the next generation of academics; perhaps to protect that privilege or perhaps just because.
    We all know successful senior academics (any age) who are extremely generous with their time, expertise and who are enthusiastic about change without losing sight of academia’s role, or the history of the institution And we all know successful senior academics (again of any age, but let’s face it predominantly older than 40) who do nothing except the bare minimum they can get away with and resent any thing new and even seem to take pride in being techno-phobic. And sadly we almost all know successful senior academics who enjoy tormenting junior academics, tearing into them at meetings and conferences and generally showing off their positions of power and influence.
    But the poison the poster spoke of is the do-nothing senior academic because it infects the junior staff who see no reason to work harder if the barriers for promotion keep being raised and senior staff not being disciplined for failing to do their job. It is poisonous to be rebuffed when they approach senior staff for help or mentoring and it is demoralising to be mocked for being interested in anything new, different, based on technology or dare I say it, practical.
    I reject, politely, that this is an insoluble problem, I also would tread warily about introducing performance measures based on corporate life. Having worked in public service, private corporations, and universities they all have different staffing needs. University management should stop building fiefdoms and instead build functioning workplaces.

    • M-H says:

      I really can’t let this go: “again of any age, but let’s face it predominantly older than 40”. Do you have any evidence for this other than hearsay and anecdata? I might as well say “…and we all know that people under 40 are entitled and lack commitment”. We are all engaged in research and comments like this just don’t cut it. Yes, senior academics can be horrible people, and there should be sanctions on certain behaviours. But life is like that, all working life is like that. One of the skills of working in institutions is learning to deal with assholes.

      • scholarhobbit says:

        That’s one for somebody working in higher-ed research: a study comparing the productivity of academics, broken down by discipline and seniority (not age, but rank)? That would be interesting and the data is easily accessible on institutional websites. Not sure how you would design a study to measure how many hours of teaching the relative groups undertake, or relative contributions to governance.
        It is clearly an emotive issue – and it appears that solid measures of objective fact regarding performance would be useful. Is anyone aware of a study of this kind?
        (I am still too depressed by the last study on higher ed employment culture re the perception of male and female job candidates with identical CVs.)

      • Teenyacademic says:

        How many successful senior academics do you know under 40? The pool is likely small. I don’t think it is very constructive to suggest that the response to a systemic cultural problem can be solved by asking individuals with the least power ‘to learn to deal with assholes”

      • M-H says:

        I’m not sure these things would be possible to do. Different disciplines have different publication mores. How do you measure a dull but worthy humanities scholar’s book against a physics scholar’s immensely effective two page paper? These measures are neither fixed nor immutable, and nor are the citation rates so widely quoted. Teaching hours aren’t a guide to anything except your ability to stand up and keep talking. Spending hours sitting on committee isn’t a test of commitment or service. The value of these activities are incredibly complex and rooted in the structure of huge organisations. Trying to reduce them to a series of countable measures won’t solve anything.

      • scholarhobbit says:

        We do apply ‘a series of countable measures’ to candidates for employment or promotion. I agree the validity of this process is questionable. However, is it equitable to apply these measures to assess the performance of junior academics (of any age) seeking appointment or promotion, and not to apply the same measures to senior academics as an ongoing performance requirement?
        That is a question, not a statement, by the way…

      • M-H says:

        Teenyacademic, I’m sorry, that was a bit rough. But my point is that academia isn’t special in this: everywhere I’ve worked I’ve had to deal with horrible people in power. I don’t think they are the problem; it is the way that universities are structured that is the problem. Not because academia works against young people, but because it has many complex structural problems that affect younger people more at the present time.

  21. randomsoju says:

    Generally when I hear comments suggesting that older academics retire, the source usually is: 1) Students that find an instructor “boring” or the coursework difficult. 2) A younger academic that seeks to fill the said older academic’s shoes at the institution. I personally find both rather appalling. I’m sure these younger academics will have a completely different attitude when they are 55+.

  22. nancy says:

    I had to LOL when reading this as I don’t think it’s ever been a “whisper”. As a seasoned academic who began her career some 30 years ago (and still hanging in there) I remember (on my good days) thinking exactly the same thing of my academic elders! Of course, ask me now to walk the kilometre between classrooms with books and handouts in tow, and I would certainly pause to consider my physical capabilities (and here I give thanks to the digital revolution which allows me to “zap” these resources from one place to another without lifting a thing). But in an academic sense, age, or more precisely, ageing, has allowed me to season and sharpen my habits of mind in ways that allow me to make a more serious and sagacious contribution to my respective disciplines, which, like most people’s, have changed over the course of my career. Don’t get me wrong, I still reserve the right to reminisce on days gone by (ah! good music) and lament the number of times change has involved “throwing the baby out with the bath water”. But I don’t think we of the over 50’s are the only ones to think like this – how we think and act is not determined by our age in years, only our minds.

    As a young clinical nurse, I was often confronted with an “age” dilemma – if I had to, who would I resuscitate first? The 30 year old or the 80 year old? Who has reached their “use by date”? How would you make the choice?

  23. AnotherAcademic says:

    I really applaud the courage of the person writing here, and I agree that there’s lots of things fundamentally wrong with the job situation, but also with the ways universities are being run. We have highly paid management, for example; and endless resources poured into marketing. Universities, we are told on open day, are BRANDS… And indeed, we wear (re-branded) vests and hand out waterbottles. But let’s not get side-tracked here…

    I do have at least three major problems with this article, though.

    1. This assumption: “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.” This makes me scream, quietly. Please do not, ever, suggest that everything can be done with half the resources, twice as well, and twice as fast! You might just be taken up on that offer. Or hold on, perhaps you already are? Academia is an exploitative environment, it works because people don’t count the hours they put in (unless they’re the consultants hired for the latest re-branding exercise, in which case, they’ll charge for every minute). It works because we [I’m sorry, I’m sweeping here] can be made to feel guilty for being able to do something we enjoy, and are passionate about.

    2. This article assumes that academics of a certain age are a pretty homogenous group, they’ve had their time, they should move on. But how can we know? Some, like the PhD students posting above, may have come to academia late? Some, like a female professor I know, spent almost two decades on contracts and were only promoted very recently? Some, like my husband, recently returned to academia after time in the public service? I think all the assumptions made here, about careers and houses and so on, really highlight an interesting new problem in academia. We have barely time to talk, and get to know each other. We arrive, disappear behind our screens & get on with our endless to-do lists. But do we really know what drives Prof X and Assoc Prof Y?

    3. This article assumes that change is always good and those not embracing it should get the hell out of the way or at least stop complaining. I’m sure university management would love that, and the government even more. We need people who raise their voices, we need them to remind management what it is all about. Why are we all into debates and challenging surface appearances in our research, and when management tells us we need a list of top research outlets, we bend over and comply? And perhaps even curse the person who says, “Hold on, not again? Surely?”

  24. Beth Dumont says:

    Hi Inger
    Anon makes some good points, especially to do with the issue of will I still have a voice (post retirement). This having a voice is important to ALL of us – the pg students as well as the academics themselves.

    I was recently in the position of having to delete parts of my Masters thesis that could be both justified and supported by the raw data simply because one of my supervisors did not appreciate them. They either challenged them personally or a pet theory held by them, and were at one stage committing clearly inappropriate acts for the stage the thesis was at (such as requesting raw data to check for accurate transcription). As an aside, I actually would welcome a post around how to deal with academic misconduct from an academic – it might put the issue on the radar of the sector, which seems to be very reluctant to admit the issue even exists (given that this has occurred to me on 3 occasions in my career so far)!!!

    Anyway – back to the topic. Anon also notes that this is an attitude, and I would note that academia is not the only place where the older generation need to be prodded into giving way for the younger one. I would also note that while the notion of having a voice is part of the issue, there is also the aspect of loss of power over others – i.e., research students. Even the most co-operative of supervisory arrangements still involves a degree of power by the academic over the student. So – the question needs to be asked – is it the loss of voice or loss of opportunity to exercise power over others that is the key element involved? I would note that one of my own supervisors retired during the course of my masters program, and became an adjunct; and is, I would have to say, just as busy as they were prior to retirement both within the university and without.

    This whole area of power relationships within academia is very underspoken about and little addressed within the sector, and needs to be brought to the debating table and openly discussed. I am currently having difficulty in locating supervisors for a PhD program, and I feel this is due to the non-traditional approach (wide ranging examination of the topic in question as opposed to a very narrow focus), and my prior experiences around my masters may also be a contributing factor. Once again – this is use of academic power, but is not being acknowledged as being such – I am being told there is no-one available to supervise me. So – why is the academic’s ‘voice’ more important than my own ‘voice’? This is all the more galling considering Australia’s egalitarian social mores and values, which state that if we are prepared to put the work in, we will get ahead.

    Please feel free to reply to me if you feel a need to communicate further on this issue. I feel it is an important one, and am committed to getting the sector to address it.

  25. Mandalay says:

    Inger, I’m looking forward to your follow-up post on this!! I would also suggest that universities are emulating the same waves of bureaucratic change in the public service – the university I am affiliated with has introduced many of these strategies. Essentially: move (by voluntary retirement or subtle coercion) the ‘oldies’ out to make way for a younger cohort; employ large numbers of very expensive bureaucrats to monitor staff performance rather than those who do the core work of the department/agency (contingent staffing); and budgets that are not spent on core resources/infrastructure but instead on consultants, and expensive and ultimately inefficient or unnecessary systems/projects. Think of nursing, teaching at pre/primary/secondary levels, and policing as examples.

    The catalyst for public service change was the belief that – particularly older, over 45 years – employees were unproductive and unnecessary. However, a key issue is that not all these unproductive employees were older (over 45 years) and often, losing a large cohort from the ‘older’ age range also meant losing those with valuable corporate knowledge. Yes, there are a number of senior academics who could be moved on, but also I can think of a few younger (i.e. under 40) admin people who are not that necessary, either (e.g. one who spends their time writing up policies on staff use of the lunch room).

    I would agree with the range of factors others have mentioned, especially structural inequality and the focus on enrolling ever greater numbers of PhD candidates when very few permanent positions exist in academia. It would perhaps be fairer for undergraduates to be required to have professional employment experience outside academia before commencing a PhD, rather than encouraging an unbroken undergraduate student to PhD career track. My rationale for this is that many academics I have met have never worked outside the university, and therefore have limited understanding or capacity to mentor new PhDs into a career other than the ivory tower. This perpetuates the PhD mill, and generates greater numbers of potential staff for exploitation.

    Thanks again for the post 🙂

  26. PrfDoc says:

    As a 55 year old full tenured professor I agree. Many of my colleagues are change-resistant under-performers who do not make a contribution anywhere near commensurate with what they cost. But in my university, they are being drummed out. We are hiring (tenure) talented and appropriately qualified younger academics, but these are also rather thin on the ground.

  27. danceswithcloud says:

    Not all older academics lead that mythical charmed life! I was a mature student and then a part timer/hourly paid worker for 20 years (!) before I got my feet under the table – only to hear people tell me I should now make way…
    Let us choose the right targets and not turn on each other!

  28. Rock Doc says:

    My experience has been that even when the older “tenured” academics retire, they simply aren’t being replaced. We’ve had a number of Level E positions become vacant due to retirements in the last few years, not a single one of them was readvertised or filled. The money was redirected to other things.

    As others have said, I do not believe it is age that is necessarily the issue. I think much of the issue is the way universities are prioritizing their budgets, and simply put, academic staff are not a high priority.

  29. thebitebook says:

    Wow – what a debate! Really touched a nerve…

    Max Planck said “A new scientific truth does not triumph by convincing its opponents and making them see the light, but rather because its opponents eventually die, and a new generation grows up that is familiar with it.”

    For me it is nothing to do with age, rather it is an attitude issue – as a “late-onset academic” with a long and varied (portfolio is the polite term) professional career behind me, I only got into academia by accident, starting a practice-based PhD at the age of 60.

    I’m now a 67-year-old unemployed post-doc, co-authoring papers with colleagues, financing conference attendances out of my own very slender pension, reviewing papers and book chapters, bidding for research projects, co-editing an academic book, and having great fun. And, I hope, doing good work that contributes to the body of knowledge.

    Maybe that is the touchstone: “To what extent/in what ways does Prof X or Researcher Y contribute to the body of knowledge?” Either directly through research, or indirectly through being a first-rate lecturer and supervisor?

  30. Tyngewick Gawcott says:

    As an older academic who took early retirement, I feel able to comment. First an anecdote, I visited our bloggers institution in the 1980s at the same time as another UK academic who was a famous practical joker. On a previous visit he had stolen a quantity of the VC’s notepaper and used it to send out a letter to every senior academic over a forgery of the VC’s signature saying that the recipients performance had been reviewed and found wanting and inviting the recipient to retire early. Uproar and outrage from the recipients ensued.

    The VC fingered my colleague as the likely culprit and called him in for interview. My colleague, an accomplished liar, denied everything. As he was leaving the VC said something like, ‘in other circumstances I would be inclined to call the police, but as it happens, I’ve had some very welcome applications for early retirement.’

    Even in the 1980s ANU was in the forefront of the managerialist revolution and I was astonished at the power wielded by administrators. Sadly this reform has infested other universities so that my own institution now has considerably more non-academic staff than academics.

    That said the situation as perceived by our blogger is not universal to all disciplines. My area is one in which practitioners need to obtain difficult professional qualifications and for credibility we need a proportion of staff also to hold such qualifications. It is impossible to recruit young staff who hold such qualifications since the pay is too poor. Younger applicants for jobs are generally newly minted PhDs with little life experience, no experience of practice, no ability or inclination to teach since rewards and incentives are centred on publication, very few of them are fluent in the university’s language of instruction, despite having PhDs from top UK institutions.

    Our blogger seems to think change is, of itself, a good thing. He (I assume it’s a he) has been listening to too many administrators who are mainly rewarded for changing things whether they need changing or not. What matters in universities is that students are taught well and good research gets done. My experience is that older and mid-career lecturers are better teachers and have more concern for students than younger ones, who are often focused on publication. The perception that older researchers aren’t that good at research is also open to question, there is some dead wood, but, so too is there among younger staff.

    Some older staff should take early retirement like I did, but some younger staff, instead of making themselves miserable, need to think about changing career too.

  31. Brisbane_PhD_candidate says:

    I am a PhD candidate in my mid 30s with an aim to enter academia in the near future. I am currently a public servant and this discussion is also applicable to government roles. There is a common understanding, a service level joke in government that you have to commit homicide to get fired. If someone is under performing, they may become performance managed until they get fed up and leave but this is rarely the case. Academia seems to be similar in that someone can sit in a position, issues may arise but unless there is a major HR issue, there is no follow through on reviews or performance management outcomes. I have chosen my supervisors carefully based on their real world experience. I have found those academics who don’t have real world experience, whether that be through their own life experiences or outside work experience at a level higher than the part time jobs they took to get through undergrad, are very rigid in their ways and difficult to convince to try anything really innovative or risky. I think those of us who start older cannot afford to not be innovative.

  32. Lana says:

    Wow! I started my academic career at 27 and after years of casual and 20 years of permanent now you want me to give it up at 50? I think finishing a PhD after 4 other degrees is a quite satisfactory achievement, as well as raising a teenager and supporting a dependent spouse at the same time. While my teaching evaluations still come back in the highest range for all items, I dispute what you say about older academics. It’s quite disrespectful. Hope the original poster does not find themselves in the same position after 20 years. It is demoralising to be even reading this conversation. Not contentious. It’s a no brainer. Grow up people. We should not have to fight generalised criticism based on age. It would not happen anywhere other than academia. Shame on you is my opinion. Not tactful, but sincere. But at least I now understand why my supervisors are not so interested in me progressing but show great interest in the younger academics. It explains the increase in workplace bullying and the unnatural recent tendency in my workplace to find out how old everyone is. For that info, I am grateful. For the rest, you’ve lost me. I’m sure it’s not much of a loss for you though. Oh and for the record, as a longterm academic spanning 20 years, and now completing a PhD, I have had a performance appraisal for the past 10 years, each and every year, and sadly, have seen many colleagues dismissed for unsatisfactory performance, and many refused promotion. It sometimes amuses me to read the stereotype assumptions of those who have not done the job, but are aiming towards something they have no idea about. I am not even going for promotion. The younger ones will get it over me each and every time due to the stereotypes evident here. Sad but true. But I do have tenure, and I am accountable. I am experienced and until someone draws attention to it, rarely focus on age as a determinant of evaluating societal worth – in academia or elsewhere. Everyone should be evaluated on merit, and merit alone.

  33. Anonymous says:

    Last year – for each semester- I lectured in 1 studio, tutored in 3 and earned around $38,000. Had I been on a 0.5 contract at Level A – which I’d jump at (I’ve not yet completed my PhD but getting close) I would have been earning roughly the same & perhaps even less, except the university would have had me for 52 weeks of the year & not just 24.
    Perhaps a way of getting early career academics in the door and teaching would be to do away with some of the sessional teaching (which is hand to mouth and fraught with stress and additionally offers no financial stability) would be offer up a stash of 0.5 positions to those eager to take them and become an ongoing part of their institution? I don’t mean to belittle sessional contracts- I’ve survived on them for a decade- but many of the sessional staff I know would gladly forgo it for a permanent position, at whatever fraction.

  34. Merilyn Childs says:

    The problem with the “age” debate is it creates a schism among us. We need solidarity, rather than division- regardless of age, history in the sector, experiences, qualifications, hardship. How can we have each other’s backs? But I understand the original author’s frustration!
    [Oh and for those of you who, like me, are nearing 60: it is likely you belted out with Mick Jagger singing “Hope I die before I get old” when you were in your 20’s. I know I did. We need the rebellious voices of younger academics outraged at privilege, even if we don’t agree with the dying part of it now we are older. “My generation” has a lot to answer for!

  35. Luigi says:

    The posting focuses on what’s in the best interests of younger academics. How about focusing on what’s best for students? The quality of teaching is what is important, and age is not an indicator of whether teaching is good or poor.

  36. Anonymous says:

    “For example, some advise their PhD students not to take up blogging and social media.”

    Count me among this number. Blog and twitter on the weekends, but focus your writing efforts on highly ranked, peer reviewed journals if you wish to stay in academia. You want people who Google your name to find your best intellectual work, not pictures of your cat.

  37. Nigel Strudwick says:

    I take a particular resentment at the way those in their 50s get mentioned, particularly coming from someone in their 40s. Come on, in this day and age, being in your 50s is not an issue. There is however, still a vast difference between being in your 50s and in your 60s. There was a lot to be said for enforced retirement at 65, and still is; it gives you time to do all those other things you ought to do. And then it clears the way for the next generation….

  38. A different view says:

    I have been involved in research since the early 1980’s and am completing my PhD. I have never had a permanent position, at most a 5 year contract but most much, much shorter. I take quite a different view to the original poster here; as far as I can see most of the problems are structural. Constricting research funding is the biggest problem I see. I accepted when I got into this game that research could be financially chancy, and have had to deal with some hand to mouth periods and may soon be doing so again, but I don’t carry a chip on my shoulder about the better opportunities the people ahead of me might have had. Instead I find it useful to stay focussed on good productivity now and aware of other potenital opportunities, and to develop the relationships that will increase my chances of picking up casual opportunities as they arise.

    There are other professions where life is financially chancy but people seem willing to pay the price in order to do work they love, which is a huge privilidge – I’m thinking acting for example. I agree life can be very frustrating for young wannabe academics, but from what I have seen, this is not a new situation.

  39. Jason Hoshikawa (@chemistinjapan) says:

    This is an interesting article. Here in Japan, faculty have a set retirement age at 65. It’s called teinen (定年). My advisor, for example, will reach retirement age the semester after I’m scheduled to graduate. At the time, he will no longer be a Professor of the university, but he can keep his directorship over a research institute affiliated with the university until he’s 68. Until the age of 70, faculty can teach part-time, but at 70, it’s really over.

    Some professors, like my advisor for example, are still very active in research. We have a group of about 50 people in total broken up into various sub-groups. I can see how it would be hard to give it up. But, at my previous university, there were two 80-year-olds that just wouldn’t leave even though they had given up research and were only teaching. They had been at the university for so long and their salaries were very high. It seemed like a waste.

    In the case of Japan, the professors that don’t want to give up research some times move to a university in Korea or Singapore to continue their work.

    As a student that will not finish his PhD until I’m almost 40 years-old, I don’t think I’m going to be pursuing a professorship. I want to teach and do research, but not as a professor.

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