A few weeks ago I bumped into an old college friend on a busy London street. We had been doctoral students together. When we had last met, two years before, he had just begun a postdoc at a prestigious institution and had signed a contract for his monograph with a respected academic publisher.
Now he is unemployed.
Away from the noise of traffic, in a nearby cafe, Jim, as I will call him, rather sheepishly told me that despite a first-class CV - including published papers in three of the top-ten cited journals in his field - and extensive experience for a candidate of his age, he has been unable to find a new position since his contract ended in the new year. Jim estimates that he has applied for upwards of 30 jobs in the past 12 months - and is now signing on the dole.
It would be easier to dismiss Jim's as an exceptional case - a victim of bad luck or poor timing, or involved in a sub-discipline going out of fashion (which he's not) - were it not for the postgraduate suites across the country filled with dynamic, brilliant doctoral students whose job prospects are equally bleak, and getting bleaker with every passing month. When I began my own PhD, about six years ago, it was still regarded by many as a sure-fire route into continuous, well-paid employment for the vast majority of those who survived the gruelling slog. For most recent graduates, however, the reality proved very different: a Herculean struggle to get on to the job ladder, short-term posts in far-flung places, a merry-go-round of postdoc after postdoc, poor remuneration, the holy grail of a tenured position at a decent university receding all the while.
Why is it so difficult for new graduates to forge an academic career in the UK? One reason, of course, is increased competition in a shrinking job market. Over the past decade, the number of PhD candidates in British universities has increased exponentially, with many recently completed doctoral students searching for jobs at a time when cutbacks in education are beginning to hit hard. But this perfect storm of more (highly qualified) applicants for fewer posts is not the only - or maybe even the main - reason why young academics are struggling to get ahead.
The upper echelon of higher education in the UK remains largely the preserve of professors born in the baby-boom era, who enjoy jobs for life and have, so far, proved very reluctant to shuffle off into retirement. In The Pinch, David Willetts offers a radical critique of the effect that this postwar generation has had on contemporary Britain. Subtitled "How the baby-boomers took their children's future - and why they should give it back", the now Tory universities and science minister's book cogently argues that today's 55-plus cohort have, through sheer weight of numbers, loaded the dice in their own favour, using their electoral dominance to ensure their own supremacy even into old age, in the form of generous, fiscally cripplingly pension provisions.
These children of the 1960s retain a massive influence on the politics and society of today - nowhere more so than in our universities. The boom in higher education in the 1970s led to the formation of new institutions and the creation of departments in a swathe of previously marginalised disciplines. These new jobs were filled mainly by young, left-wing academics born in the 20 years from 1945.
Forty years on, many members of this once-radical cadre are still employed by universities, as professors, vice-chancellors or ancillary staff. But now, rather than facilitating change, these older academics are standing in its way: the lack of movement at the top of the tree reduces the upward mobility of mid-career academics, preventing juniors getting a foothold on the career ladder at all. Given the baby-boomers' dominance of the top jobs - and, consequently, the bulk of salaries - young academics have little or no chance of achieving full-time, permanent positions at anything like the age of their 55-plus colleagues.
It is not that the baby-boom generation, in higher education and elsewhere, has been consciously selfish, they merely profited from a huge post-war swell in numbers and opportunities. But there is a need to look closely at how the disparity between older and younger academics can be addressed in the present, especially given the crisis facing university funding.
There are options available - "retiring" chairs to make way for new blood or ring-fencing jobs for recent graduates - but these are not being actively explored. For the sake of Jim, and other dedicated younger academics bulking out job centre queues, perhaps it's time that they were.