Angst about grey matter

November 5, 1999

Harvey Kaye describes how American academia is suffering from a bad case of the creeping fifties

As a child I remember lying awake at night trying to fathom growing up and older. I specifically recall thinking about the year 2000 and calculating that on the eve of the new millennium I would turn 50.

My sleeplessness had nothing to do with futuristic visions, science fiction fantasies or alien-invasion nightmares (actually, my standard 1950s nightmare had Godzilla dropping atomic bombs on my elementary school), simply with my own mortality.

I remember feeling anxious, wondering how much of the 21st century I would get to see. I also recollect calming myself with the thought that "it's a long way off, no need to think about it now". In spite of all my resistance, that day has arrived. Last month, I reached the half-century mark.

I do not marvel alone. Everywhere, there are signs of interest in or concern for our now middle-aged cohorts. A September issue of The Economist demands "Let old folk work!", its cover bearing a black-and-white photo of a white-haired gent yelling into a telephone as if it is the old folks themselves demanding a return to field and factory (notably the phone itself is an old corded model).

Meanwhile, Business Week's cover shouts "Brain drain: with older executives set to leave the workplace in droves, corporate America is facing a dramatic talent shortage", the accompanying picture showing another white-haried gent, this time seated in a leather chair with his shoes up.

The online magazine Intellectual Capital - no doubt edited by hip and ironically attuned "thirty-somethings" and "Gen Xers" - dedicates an issue to the "Elderly Nation? The baby boom will soon become the elder boom. A look at the implications". Its articles include: "The greying of the developed economies"; "Preparing for an ageing society"; "Modern maturity?"; and "The politics of ageing" (leading me to wonder if my generation will rediscover its radicalism, as we rediscover the freedom in pensioned and penurious maturity that we enjoyed at university).

There is no escaping the discourse. The Chronicle of Higher Education kicked off the academic year with "The greying professoriate", a look at the American college teacher, a new report on academic life by the University of California Los Angeles higher education research institute.

Based on surveys of almost 34,000 faculty staff nationwide, the report addresses: teaching and research practices; technology and internet use; professional understandings and values; campus climate and job satisfaction; and political preferences. Yet the feature of the report that received the greatest notice was the ageing of the professorial ranks.

A third of US faculty staff are now 55 or older, and in the past ten years the percentage of university teachers and scholars under the age of 45 has fallen from 41 to 34.

I cannot help but compare my own activities and attitudes to those reported by my colleagues. The only place where I find myself truly deviating from the norm is in "political orientation".

American academics generally profess centre-left political views (less than 1 per cent identify themselves as far right, 18 per cent conservative, 37 per cent middle-of-the-road, 40 per cent liberal, and 5 per cent far left). I would have replied "far left", assuming it meant radical-democratic or socialist.

All the talk of ageing makes me ever more conscious of the "generation gap" when I enter the classroom. Looking around the lecture hall of my first-year course, I realise my students have parents my age and some, possibly, grandparents not much older.

What crosses their 18-year-old minds when they hear me talk about the cold war, the 1960s and the rise of Reaganism as part of my contemporary experience? I can tell you what often crosses mine. In the middle of recounting an experience of youth, it suddenly dawns on me that I am talking about events of about 35 years ago, leading me to blurt out: "Can I be that old? How can I possibly be talking of things that happened that many years ago?"

Occasionally, I get to share such sensations with my peers. At a recent political studies conference a graduate student referred to himself as having been born "postwar", leading the baby boomers present to look at each other in wonder until we realised he meant post-Vietnam.

Then our wonder turned to upset, as we realised both how old we had become and that we have no generational monopoly on the term.

To avoid completely freaking out, I continually turn to history. Actually, I get a kick out of telling my students that it would take only five of me, laid head-to-toe chronologically, to reach back to the 18th century. There, I say, you would find a young man caught up in the American Revolution or, sticking to my own family lineage, struggling to provide for a family in a Russian-Jewish shtetl as an artisan or tradesman.

I thereby hope to get them to appreciate the radical character of modern history and, at the same time, how intimately connected to the past we remain.

Without conceding anything to the conservative Edmund Burke, and genes aside, I want them to appreciate that, for all the apparent newness of the world, we stand not so very far removed from our ancestors.

Of course, young people like to think of themselves as truly original and autonomous folk. So, the last thing they probably want to consider is how their lives are permeated with historical residue. But, as I explain, such things may also be serving to empower them. It gives me hope to think so.

Harvey J. Kaye is professor of social change and development at the

University of Wisconsin-Green Bay, United States.

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