Thou shalt not retire (me)

When offered the option of retiring at half salary, the professor replied ‘Why would I do that ? I am already retired — at full salary’
R. Solomon and J. Solomon in Up the University

Very few subjects are as divisive among academics as mandatory retirement. Perhaps the most unfortunate aspect of this controversy, is that the division tends to pitch against each other different generations of scholars.
One of the things that bother me the most about the debate, not only in conversation but also on the printed press and in the blogosphere, is the “me, me, me” connotation of most of the arguments put forward by those who oppose mandatory retirement. It seems to me that the broader implications of a nationally adopted retirement policy (or lack thereof) on younger generations, as well as on academia as a whole, are ignored, or downplayed.

For example, one often hears the following, especially from senior professors opposing the idea of mandatory retirement at a specific age:
1) Why should I be compelled to retire if my performance is satisfactory, by any accepted, quantitative standards ? As long as I can do the job, just leave me the hell alone.
2) If performance is not satisfactory, shouldn’t one be forced out of the job regardless of age and/or job seniority ?
3) I had to work so hard for so many years when I was young, in order to get to be an academic ! Now it is only fair that I reap the benefits of my hard work, and that includes the freedom to stay for as long as I want.
4) Young age does not a good scholar make, per se. Indeed, the fact that I have managed to stay active for so many years is evidence of excellence. Odds are that a young person replacing me will not be equally successful.

The above argument are not meaningless or unreasonable per se [aside from the obvious consideration that virtually no other category of professionals (not self-employed) is presently allowed to make any of them — and make no mistake, they are all flawed]. What is meaningless, and misses the forest for the tree, is discussing the merits of each of them as if retirement were merely an individual, personal issue, without any repercussion on the rest of society.
As older tenured faculty who enjoy good health and wish to stay on the job extend the duration of their employment, opportunities for younger ones eager to start their careers become scarcer and scarcer, as the number of available faculty positions is reduced [0]. All of this has a number of consequences that simply can not and should not be ignored. It may not be the responsibility of senior faculty who do not wish to retire to offer a solution, but something should be done to ensure fairness toward everyone.
Fairness is the word to emphasize here. Fairness is the key requirement to restore and ensure solidarity and comradeship among academics of different generations, with the ensuing benefits to the university enterprise as a whole. Academia only stands to lose by a bitter division among those who can provide valuable experience and mentoring, and those who can bring to the table enthusiasm and unconventional ideas.

In case the reader has not yet figured it out, I generally support the notion of setting a cap on the number of years that any individual can spend on the job. I am not equally keen on compulsory retirement based on age only, although I would prefer that to the current situation (no limit at all throughout North America). When I talk about “maximum number of years”, I do not know how many that should be, whether 30, 35, 40, or anything else. I think, however, that society ought to converge on some number, much like it did when it decided that, for example, legal drinking age is 21. Naturally, such a number is largely conventional, and should be periodically reconsidered and revised, whenever deemed appropriate, to reflect evolved societal needs and other circumstances (such as increased life expectancy). But avoiding the discussion altogether, taking a “oh, well, tough luck” approach, is not responsible and will not serve all of us well in the long run.

How have I come to feel the way I do ? Below are some considerations that I regard as most important, at this time (when I change my mind I shall blog a retraction). They have nothing to do with whether or not the average 65-yr old is more productive a scholar than a 45-yr old. To me, that is besides the point, and largely irrelevant in practice.
First of all, to cry foul and accuse anyone of “age discrimination”, simply for pointing out the obvious to the oblivious, is disingenuous. It is a fact that the financial needs of a 65-yr old who has worked for 30 years, built a comfortable retirement nest, paid off mortgage and whose children are grown up and financially independent are not the same as those of a 45-yr old who has been on the job for 5 years, has little or no retirement money put aside, has children in college, a mortgage to pay and makes considerably less money. So, if one of the two has to be asked to sacrifice and give up a job, expecting that that person be the one who can best afford it, seems hardly “discriminatory”.
And age discrimination should be avoided in both directions. If 60 is the new 40, then 40 ought to be the new 20. That is, if it can be assumed that, on average, the physical and mental fitness of a 65-yr old these days, match those of someone considerably younger 20 years ago (who would not have been of retirement age by the standards of the time), by the same argument a young person these days should be allowed to spend a longer period of time in school, or having fun, or employed temporarily, without incurring into any negative judgment on the part of potential employers, parents, spouses and the rest of society.
But as long as society keeps expecting of the average 40-yr old that (s)he be (duti)fully employed, as long as an applicant above a certain age is almost automatically discarded from consideration for entry-level jobs, to allow a previous generation to seize indefinitely a significant fraction of positions for which that 40-yr old would be qualified is plainly not fair [1]. It. Is. Not. Fair.
Working in academia is a privilege [2], not an entitlement. The fact that Senior Prof is still performing adequately, teaching superbly and doing great research, does not erase the fact that (s)he has had 30, 35, 40 years of enjoyment practicing his/her dream profession (one which (s)he would not have exchanged for anything else). Is it really so outrageous to ask that this privilege be shared with someone 30, 35, 40 years junior, who has the same right to a career that Senior Prof was granted 30, 35, 40 years earlier ? Yes, it is true that the younger person replacing Senior Prof may turn out to be a lesser scholar, but that is a risk that has to be taken — after all, a chance was taken on Senior Prof too, many years earlier.
The argument that standards were higher and becoming a professor was harder many years ago than it is now is… well, ridiculous.

[0] There is no reason nor any historical evidence, suggesting that the size of academic faculties will increase vis-a-vis a greater applicant pool.
[1] Thus, if tenured professors ends up staying on the job until 80 and later, it seems only adequate that one be allowed to spend ten years or more on a postdoctoral appointment, and at the age of 50 to apply for a tenure-track assistant professorship without raising eyebrows.
[2] Of course, we have all heard tenured professors lamenting the workload, low pay, and terrible stress of their thankless job. Heck, I do it all the time (both hear and lament). In order to get an idea of how seriously that kind of talk should be taken, one need only look at the fraction of tenured professors who take early retirement, and compare that to the corresponding fraction of workers in just about any other walk of life.

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7 Responses to “Thou shalt not retire (me)”

  1. Anonymous Says:


    The argument that standards were higher and becoming a professor was harder many years ago than it is now, is… well, ridiculous.

    I agree. I think many of the senior,tenured professor would’ve not reached tenured in the current times. Competition seems higher now and academic job openings are just a few.

  2. Anonymous Says:

    Problem in academia is the lack of “job description”. If you are a truck driver you will retire because the hardships of the job will be too much to cope with. But if you are a professor you can slack off as much as you want and still argue why you should be kept.

    Am I the only one who thinks that society does not benefit from the institution of tenure?


    • Massimo (formerly known as Okham) Says:

      But if you are a professor you can slack off as much as you want and still argue why you should be kept.

      Which is why I think it would be best to divorce completely the discussion from job performance, and emphasize the social cost of having someone on the job for too long, regardless of their age.
      My position is: you have had fun for thirty (forty, whatever) years, now it’s someone else’s turn… don’t we all learn that as kids ?

      Am I the only one who thinks that society does not benefit from the institution of tenure?

      Nah, I have felt the same way for many years.
      But I no longer believe this, or rather I no longer feel that it is such a big problem… tenure is not an issue, Mark… If tenure were abolished tomorrow, do you think all departments would start firing faculty like crazy ? I doubt it, frankly… moreover, if every institution worldwide abolished tenure right away it would be one thing, but moving to a system where you have a fraction of institutions that do not grant tenure and the rest that does would simply mean to create another division between first and second-class citizens… I don’t think we need that, really.

      • Anonymous Says:

        But we already have second-class citizens, and their number is growing — research faculty, teaching adjuncts, etc. The current trend in academia is toward more and more teaching being carried out by adjuncts and drad students. For a second-tier research university there is not much problem to abolish tenure now — very few faculty actually would be lured away, but vast majority would stay. Of course by being able to fire “dead wood” the universities would be in a better position financially to pay higher salaries. So that the aftershock of such a decision would be relatively


      • Massimo (formerly known as Okham) Says:

        Look, I do not have the crystal ball, so I cannot say for sure that your scenario would not materialize. I doubt if abolishing tenure would do anyone any good, at this point.
        You say “very few faculty” would be lured away, but I think that those would be the best ones, leaving behind the others, who are “not good enough to get a tenured position”.
        And you know very well what would happen next.
        Faculty at non-tenure schools would be automatically assumed by grant reviewers to be mediocre (much like it is now assumed that if you are at a non-PhD-granting institution you cannot possibly be good), they would get no funding, their graduate programs would start languishing…
        Bad idea, Mark, trust me πŸ™‚

      • Anonymous Says:

        Sure, if you are to establish a Communist system better do it all around the world at the same time, otherwise it will be unstable πŸ™‚


      • Massimo (formerly known as Okham) Says:

        Ah-ha! I knew it. I never really believed his assassination, I knew that Lev Trotzkij was still alive somewhere… he goes by the name of “Mark” πŸ™‚

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