Grey days can be heydays

October 1, 2004

US academics no longer retire as a matter of course, writes Stephen Phillips, but those who do seldom quit campus for good

Retirement ain't what it used to be. The era of a carriage clock and stiff handshake at 65 after decades of loyal service is long gone. As the postwar baby-boomers who have dominated university ranks for decades near retirement, a rite of passage previously taken for granted is being transformed - through early retirement, deferred retirement or semi-retirement. Meanwhile, medical and nutritional advances have extended people's life spans and opened up the prospect of new vistas of mental and physical vigour beyond 65, raising questions about how to live what may be lengthy post-full-time work lives, not to mention practical issues such as budgeting to make financial ends meet for longer.

Nearly half America's major colleges offer staff financial incentives to retire early, according to the Association of American University Professors; and roughly 30 to 40 per cent have introduced phased retirement schemes, says Robert L. Clark, professor of economics and business management at North Carolina State University.

But, with the abolition a decade ago of mandatory retirement at 70 for US academics, a small but growing number of staff are working into their seventies and beyond. Research published in the American Economic Review in 2002 found that retirement rates among faculty aged about 70 had declined markedly since the 1994 edict. At Yale University, there were no tenured faculty older than 70 in 1988. Last year, nearly 7 per cent were septuagenarians, according to the university's Office of Institutional Research.

Staff may not feel ready to trade the intellectual ferment of campus life for full-time doting on the grandchildren or pottering about the garden, or they may feel they have a few good years left in them yet. For example, Yale chemist John Fenn was forced to vacate his lab in 1987 when he reached then-compulsory retirement age, in the midst of career-culminating research. Fenn decamped to Virginia Commonwealth University, where he was able to continue his experimentation, and had the last word, scooping the joint 2002 Nobel prize for chemistry at 85.

Some US campuses, such as the University of San Diego Law School, are even headhunting eminent older faculty.

It's nothing codified, says Daniel Rodriguez, San Diego dean, "but it's not accidental that we've recruited various senior faculty over the past (few) decades".

The informal strategy began in the 1970s, when Ronald Maudsley, then 59, crossed from Britain where he had been law professor at Oxford University and King's College London. Other early catches included Nathaniel Nathanson, 68, from Chicago's Northwestern University, where he had taught for 41 years, and Kenneth Culp Davis, 67, from the University of Chicago.

In 2002, San Diego landed Yale Kamisar, a law professor at the University of Michigan and a leading authority on criminal procedure. Kamisar, now in his mid-seventies, juggles his time between the two institutions.

Decades of lecturing, research and writing make veteran faculty consummate old pros whose wisdom rubs off on younger staff, Rodriguez says. They also add a little glamour to faculty rosters.

"But it's not just about adding baubles," he says. "These are productive, sociable, professional, interesting colleagues."

Appointments are not sinecures, he stresses. Rodriguez's antennae are up for any chancers angling for a cushy number amid Southern California's palm fronds, balmy sunshine and laid-back lifestyle. "We're not a retirement venue," he says.

That said, he's not above playing up San Diego's sunbelt location - a destination for many US retirees on the so-called "snowbird" migrationary path from the frigid winters of the densely populated Northeast and Midwest where they spent their working lives (and where most of America's highest-powered universities are).

Ultimately, it's a two-way street, Rodriguez says. "Our senior colleagues greatly benefit, professionally, intellectually and socially, from their interaction with younger staff and students."

'If you love it, keep doing it'

US academics no longer retire as a matter of course, writes Stephen Phillips, but those who do seldom quit campus for good

Eighty-one-year-old neurobiologist Arnold Scheibel has something younger colleagues can only dream of.

A neurobiology and psychiatry professor at the University of California, Los Angeles, Scheibel explains: "Those of us in this age group go back over a half-century of the most crucial findings (in neuroscience).

Stuff that's now taken for granted was once highly suspect and counterintuitive. If we can impart some sense of this growth (to students), then we've given something back."

Scheibel decided to leave research to his younger cohorts after reaching retirement age and now devotes himself to teaching instead.

Formerly director of UCLA's Brain Research Institute, he is taking his own medicine after studying in the lab the grey matter's plasticity and ability to forge new connections. Like exercise, mental workouts are critical to cognitive function, he says. Neuroscience suggests mental engagement is key to retaining mental acuity. The adage "use it or lose it" applies, he says.

"Challenge and newness are the best tickets to continued high-level brain function. Learning a language or meaningful social interaction enhance brain function."

And you can teach an old dog new tricks, it just takes longer, Scheibel affirms, citing wife and research partner Marion Diamond's research at Berkeley that shows that ageing rats retain the "thrust to learn".

Scheibel also quotes studies linking neurological "intactness" at advanced ages to the amount of "intellectual participation" individuals showed.

"Those who were most involved and committed" also showed delayed onset of degenerative diseases such as Alzheimer's.

Other studies have shown that the brains of college graduates have a greater build-up of so-called dendrites, extensions to neurons that send and receive messages.

"It's not the level of education, but the kinds of life pattern that enhanced education makes possible for individuals to experience" that explain the brain circuitry build-up, Scheibel says.

He adds that retirement can be particularly hard on driven, intellectually voracious academics. "I feel sensitive about what happens to older academics. I've had a number of friends who retired at 65. I don't like what happens to them without challenges.

"I counsel colleagues that if you love it, keep doing it," he says, but he admits "concern" that faculty staying on mean fewer opportunities for younger staff.

Among other pastimes, Scheibel paints, has begun his autobiography and is contemplating learning cerebral card games, such as bridge.

"These are," he says, "all little ways one tries to exercise the man upstairs."


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