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Discussion about enforced retirement for older academics to make way for younger colleagues was hotly debated over the internet

September 25, 2014

Should academics be forced to retire? That’s the question asked by an anonymous scholar in their mid-forties in a guest post on The Thesis Whisperer blog run by Inger Mewburn, director of research training at the Australian National University.

“The University where I currently work has recognised an age imbalance in its workforce, which is skewed towards those over 55,” the post says. “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”, the writer says, “but is it?”

“It seems to me that academics in their fifties have led pretty charmed lives,” the blog continues. “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 classmates were making money hand over fist. But now they are laughing all the way to the bank as they reap massive superannuation entitlements.”

Coupled with this is the “ever growing number of aspiring researchers and lecturers trying to find a chink in the impenetrable glass walls of academia”. Although many academics in their fifties might not feel ready to retire, the anonymous author asks: should they be forced out early?

“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. Undergraduate and graduate students live in a different world from their elders,” the blog continues. “Some older academics…are in a position to resist change, but it’s not an option for the rest of us.”

The blogger says that some older academics advise their PhD students not to take up blogging, or engage with social media, as they “ignore the career benefits and emphasize the dangers in an attempt to discourage change”.

“I can’t understand those over 50’s who hang on when they are clearly hating the way academia has changed,” the author continues, adding that they could spend the next 20 to 30 years in relative comfort if they so wished. In short, the blog wants to know why they aren’t “beating a path to the exit doors”.

The blog adds: “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.”

Unsurprisingly, the blog provoked a huge reaction online. Writing on her Music for Deckchairs blog, Kate Bowles, senior lecturer in communication and media studies at the University of Wollongong in Australia, was unimpressed.

The blog “completely ignores weary academics with dependent families, or a backstory of contract employment and patchy superannuation contributions, or who just took out their first mortgage in their 50s”, she says.

“The problems we are facing are structural, entrenched and worsening…so even if you know a senior academic sauntering to retirement, they’re not the reason there aren’t enough jobs to go around, and they’re not holding back anyone’s promotion.”

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