Saturday, February 08, 2014

The PBS Article on Faculty Non-Retirement

I did that web thing where you read effbee, and follow a link, and then follow a link, and found myself reading a PBS article "Colleges and Universities See Graying Workforce Holding onto Coveted Positions."

In the article, a small number of faculty members from pretty elite schools on the east coast are interviewed, including Claire Potter of Tenured Radical, about faculty members working into their 70s and problems with that for younger scholars and scholarly work.

In my small experience here, things look very different.  I see most of my colleagues balance the financial realities of starting late after years of grad school, low pay, but a (so far) decent retirement with the difficulties of the teaching load, constant demands for more administrivia, health problems, and rough weather; most that I know seem to retire in their mid-60s, which, for this generation means they can get Social Security and Medicare to cover health insurance.

And then, in the press, on one side we have young folks saying that we're staying too long, and on the other side, the government saying we won't have access to Social Security until later, so we need to work longer.  The Affordable Care Act MAY make earlier retirement plausible for some folks.

I'm reminded of Hal wanting that crown, being impatient for it, though I don't think of my job as a crown, exactly.  When haven't younger folks wanted to shove out the older generation for being old and greedy, and take over themselves?  I'm pretty sure my generation was plenty impatient. 

The difference, I think, is that for people in the US, since, say, the 40s, we've had this idea that there should be a retirement, a period of relative leisure to grow old, even for people who aren't among the very wealthy.  But I think historically that's a pretty rare thing.  Most people through history have struggled to eat and keep reasonably sheltered until they died.  They didn't retire and leave the land lease to their kids because they needed to keep working as long as they could, and when they couldn't, well, that was pretty soon going to be it.

I wonder if my impression that faculty at schools with higher teaching loads tend to retire a bit earlier is accurate? 

I wonder if there's also a regional aspect to that?  Are there incentives to work longer if you're in a big city?  (I know that's a whole complex can of worms; most faculty members here come from at least moderately privileged backgrounds, and a fair percentage from larger cities, and many of those folks move away when they retire.)

One of my department colleagues and I, trying to figure out if we're likely to ask for another TT search in the near future, and knowing that out budget makes it unlikely that we'll get a new line or get to search for one of the lines we had that was put on hold, ran down roughly our TT faculty ages a bit back.  I'm probably not 100% accurate in my count (or in estimating some peoples' ages), but here goes.

60s - 3 all men
50s - 9, 8 women, 1 man
40s - 10, 5 women, 5 men
30s - 6, 3 women, 3 men
20s - 2, 1 woman, 1 man

Of the 40s and 50s groups, a fair number were hired during their 40s, a couple quite recently.  (That is, we've hired people who were in their 40s.  They're new TT faculty at 40+)

So, at least in my small department, we have a reasonable balance, I think.


  1. Here at my university, our faculty tend to work, literally, until a year or so before they die. One retired two months before he died. This is because our pay is so awful, I suspect. Who can afford to retire?

    I am supported in this belief, BTW, in that our business professors retire at 55 or 60, and they are the sole faculty that get paid well.

    The other objection I have to that article is its assumption that if older professors retired at 65 or 67, their lines would be replaced by TT hires. LOLZ, I say. We're had 5 professors leave or retire over the past six years. Not a single one of these positions has been replaced by a full-time hire. Instead, administration just hires more adjuncts.

    1. YES.

      Add in salary compression and even if new tt assistants are hired instead of adjuncts, they may cost more.

  2. The problem is not that professors are holding onto jobs. It's that for a corporate university, these are some of the last non-administrative jobs that pay a living wage, and the corporate types in the country can't stand it. Blame the jobholders, not the lack of support.

    So say you get your first job at, say, 40+ and retire at what the MLA considers a "standard" retirement age of 62--5 years before you're eligible for SS and Medicare.

    You cannot get another job because who would hire you at that age?

    Your family lives a long time, so genetically speaking, you're looking at not "outliving your savings" by the time you shuffle off this mortal coil at 90-95, with some years of ill health/helplessness likely. Miscalculate, and you're living in a cardboard box under a bridge, sharing a can of cat food with your cat.

    And your line? You're replaced by 3 adjuncts, which the comments at the article mention but the article doesn't stress, preferring to trash those professors who are selfishly refusing to die or retire (one or the other--doesn't matter to the trashers).

  3. Well, I think this really needs to be an individual question for each professor. If you want to retire at a "normal" age, then you should do it. If you're still capable of doing your job and like it, then you should be able to continue. If you're a bitter person who is clinging to your job because you can't afford to retire, but you hate everything and everyone, then you should probably figure out a way to do something different.

    This last sentence describes one of my colleagues. She hates everything and everyone. She says she can't retire because she can't afford to. She's 64, and plans to retire at 70, but I wish she would do it sooner and stop making us and our students miserable. The students complain about her in the evals a lot -- so she tells me in utter disbelief -- and our department chair has "put her on notice" a couple of times, whatever that means. But what would she do? She barely makes more money than me, but at age 64 (and she's single, so must rely on herself alone), what other career would she take on that would pay the same?

    My chair has made it clear that he's not going to replace her either, which is very stupid, but that's probably not his call anyway. I'm sure the top d00ds have made this decision as they were padding their own paychecks. Seriously, it's a miracle that my TT line was retained in this environment.

  4. I find myself looking at this (perhaps somewhat trumped-up) battle from the perspective of someone caught in the middle: mid-career in age, but non-tenure-track (with the salary, albeit a full-time one with benefits, to prove it). From that perspective, two thoughts come to mind:

    --if retiring tenure-track professors are replaced by tenure-track hires, should they necessarily be replaced by brand-new Ph.D.s, or should departments be taking a look at their own longtime contingents? There are a number of arguments against hiring older/experienced contingents. The spoken one will be that contingents' training and research may well be stale/outdated (but that isn't necessarily always the case, and if we've managed to keep up any sort of research program while teaching a heavy course load, that's pretty good evidence that we're in good shape to take on both the teaching and the research burdens of the tenure track). The unspoken one, at least at research universities, is that such hires don't create a market for new Ph.D.s, whom the existing faculty would like to keep teaching (and I sympathize with that, but not enough to support continuing to flood an already-flooded market). I very much doubt anyone's going to rally around this particular cause (as opposed to the cause of making sure there are jobs for new Ph.D.s), but, as a member of a potentially lost generation of Ph.D.s (and as someone who sometimes feels generally trapped between entitled baby boomers and their equally entitled offspring), I feel the need to mention the possibility when the subject comes up (which, sadly, is often in the form of comments, any time the market shows the slightest sign of improving, that this is proof that grad programs shouldn't be cut back: "look at all the jobs we're going to need to fill soon!")

    --deciding when to retire may be one of the greatest economic benefits of tenure. I don't think I'm going to lose my job in the next few years, but the prospect of losing it the coming 5-20 years is scary (increasingly so as time goes on). I got the same late start as many of my tenure-track colleagues (first full-time job at 36, after 5 years of adjuncting), but, because I make less than they do (and they're underpaid relative to the local cost of living, too), I'll be even less prepared to retire at 62, 65, or even 67 (which is my social security retirement age, give or take half a year). And I'm one of the lucky contingents, with a TIAA-CREF account into which my employer puts 10% of my salary (well, at least my winter salary). And I feel especially vulnerable because I in some ways fit the profile undine describes above, though without tenure: I earn a noticeably higher salary than entry-level full-time contingents (though still less than an entry-level tenure-track faculty member), which, I fear, will increasingly make me stick out on a spreadsheet as a tempting cost-cutting target.

    So I guess the tl;dr version is that I feel no animus against my tenure-track colleagues who decide to keep teaching past their 65th or even 70th birthdays (as long as they're physically and mentally able, which many of them are), but I do feel some resentment of tenure-track colleagues of any age who argue for perpetuating (or even creating or expanding) graduate programs on the basis that there will be jobs to fill someday soon.

  5. Contingent Cassandra,
    I think it's criminal that PhD programs haven't been reduced drastically since the late 80s. I think they should be, but with special care to make sure that the discriminations against people from non-elite backgrounds doesn't get even worse than it is.