Midlife crisis? Academic satisfaction lowest at 43, says study

Paper confirms that academics with permanent posts are on average more satisfied with their job than those on temporary contracts

February 19, 2020
Source: Getty
In the mire: both tenured and non-tenured academics’ job satisfaction falls off in the first part of their career and until middle age

Academics are not immune to a midlife crisis, it appears, with a survey of 10,000 researchers revealing that they get the least satisfaction from their jobs at the age of 43.

Scholars who examined responses from academics across 34 European countries found that job satisfaction declined steadily during the first half of researchers’ careers, hitting a low point in the early forties. It then climbed steadily for the rest of respondents’ careers.

The research also shows that job satisfaction was closely linked to the type of contract a researcher was on. Unsurprisingly, those with a permanent contract reported a higher level of job satisfaction than those on temporary contracts.

Academics from the University of Oslo used data from the 2012 Mobility Survey of the Higher Education Sector to conduct the analysis, published last month in Studies in Higher Education.

They found “a U-shaped relationship between age and job satisfaction”, with both tenured and non-tenured academics’ job satisfaction falling off in the first part of their career and until middle age. However, “the decrease is much steeper for temporary workers, and substantially milder for permanent employees”, say authors Fulvio Castellacci and Clara Viñas-Bardolet.

Their job satisfaction indicator ranges between 0 and 13. Analysis showed that the score of those with no permanent contract declined steeply between their twenties and their forties, dropping to a low of about 9.25 in their early forties. After that, there was a slow rise as they got older, eventually reaching a high of about 10.75 by the end of their career.

In contrast, those with permanent contracts had a much less pronounced “U shape”; their job satisfaction scores declined very gradually to about 9.75 in their early to mid-forties and then rose steadily to about 11.25 by the end of their career.

The findings show that permanent contracts are relatively more important for the job satisfaction of researchers at an intermediate career stage, the authors write.

Professor Castellacci, head of Oslo’s TIK Centre for Technology, Innovation and Culture, said “one possible reason for this is because this is exactly the phase of life when people are more likely to need stability”.

“For example, perhaps you are building a family, making choices about which city you would like to live in or buying a house, and you don’t want to continue to move from one job to another and change cities/countries all the time,” he said.

Permanent positions afforded not only social stability but also job stability, which was vital in allowing academics to plan their next career steps and future work, to set priorities and to focus on activities that they considered “more relevant and more interesting”, the authors say.

Professor Castellacci said it was not surprising that the data backed up what has been a “major topic of discussions for academics for years”, but added that it was important to have empirical data to prove to universities and policymakers that “having a permanent position is important for everybody”.

anna.mckie@timeshighereducation.com

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Reader's comments (1)

I always find this kind of thing odd since I have not noticed an upswing in satisfaction being now in my late fifties. Ten years ago I was really flying and very satisfied but the pace of change in HE is such that I find it most tiresome. Retirement is in sight but not quite here and that is a cause of dissatisfaction. Perhaps I am an outlier?

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