It’s not fair to go on for ever

Older academics need to make room for the young, says Sally Feldman

August 13, 2015
Sally Feldman columnist illustration
Source: Paul Hamlyn

Misery, poverty, low self-esteem and unemployment. That’s the future facing bright young scholars. Three years after graduation, only 19 per cent of UK PhDs are employed in any type of academic job, according to statistics from the National Union of Students.

“The effect of this situation on our younger colleagues is crippling,” says Eleanor Dickey, professor of Classics at the University of Reading. For her 2014 report for the Council of University Classical Departments, The Impact of the Poor Academic Job Market on PhD Graduates, she conducted two online surveys. Her findings make depressing reading: “Most respondents rated practical difficulties like poverty as less damaging to them personally than the morale problems associated with failure to secure an academic job.”

She suggests several ways in which the lives of these young scholars might be made more tolerable: offering continued contact with their doctoral university, providing more robust career advice or, quite simply, creating more permanent positions. But how might this be achieved amid increasing budgetary constraints, especially now that there is no legally required retirement age?

It’s too early to know how far the age group of university staff has changed since 2011, when that restriction was removed. But in the US, where there has been no mandatory retirement age since 1994, there has been a significant shift upwards. In some American universities, a third of academics are now 60 or older, and the rate at which academics even in their early seventies step down has fallen by two-thirds.

It seems likely that UK academics will follow the trend. The amendment to the Equality Act that abolished enforced retirement was greeted by many with rejoicing. “This is particularly true for academics, who have opted for a career with low physical demands and which, traditionally at least, allows high levels of autonomy,” wrote Amanda Goodall and John Montgomery in Times Higher Education (“Who says innovators have to be young?”, 22 May 2014). And, they conclude, “a significant proportion will not want to stop work or may not have adequate pension provision to enable them to retire.”

Of course it’s tempting, and sometimes necessary, to maintain that comfortable salary for as long as possible. But among my own colleagues who have chosen to continue to work beyond the traditional plateau, money is only one consideration.

“My wife and I have really done nothing but work for 40 years,” confided one lecturer. “We can’t contemplate retirement. What else would we do?”

Another offered a somewhat more domestic excuse. “I have to carry on working for as long as possible”, he explained, “because I keep all my books in my office, and my wife won’t have them in the house.”

That dark vacuum awaiting those nearing retirement can be daunting. How do you replace a familiar routine, or face up to the fact that no one is waiting for you to turn up? And how do you define yourself without the prop of a job or a title? As one anonymous blogger, Thesis Whisperer, put it: “Reluctance to leave has more to do with loss of identity and loss of a voice than finances or principles…It’s no wonder that some older academics fear retirement when their professional identity is completely entwined with their personal identity.”

Some people struggle with the very idea that the world can carry on without them. “Professors are blind to the incontrovertible fact that in the scheme of things, they are replaceable cogs who are forgotten the moment they are gone,” asserts Laurie Fendrich, professor emerita of art and art history at Hofstra University, New York. In her 2014 essay for the Chronicle of Higher Education, “The forever professors”, she maintains that “academics who don’t retire are greedy, selfish and bad for students”.

It’s a point of view enthusiastically endorsed by Thesis Whisperer, who believes that too many older faculty members are resistant to change. “I can’t understand those over 50s who hang on when they are clearly hating the way academia has changed,” he writes. “Their resistance can be poisonous…Some advise their PhD students not to take up blogging and social media.”

He has a point. I know of several elderly scholars who haven’t even heard of social media, who refuse to use email, or else get the departmental secretary to print out all their messages. So inured are these Luddites that they think a jpeg is somewhere to hang their sports jacket, and Bluetooth is an extra-strong denture powder.

But they are not typical. The majority of academics have enormous reserves of wisdom, expertise and scholarly experience that should not be wasted. So how can they be retained without blocking the way for the new generation?

Goodall and Montgomery suggest that universities should become more flexible, adapt to the benefits their older staff can offer, and “provide them with roles that are rewarding at every stage of their careers”. Part-time positions not only release funding for more junior appointments, but also help to ease the transition to retirement.

Many academics do maintain links with their universities after they’ve left their full-time posts. Fractional contracts or consultancy arrangements allow for the creation of more jobs for graduates, while for the retiring academics there are countless rewards.

“Reading by daylight,” one enthused to me. “Bliss!”

“It’s so wonderful not to have to attend meetings any more, or to make those endless grant applications,” said another.

Having stepped down from my permanent post as dean a couple of years ago, I relish my continued association with the university and enjoy seeing former staff without feeling responsible for them.

There is one thing I still miss, however: the stationery cupboard.

Sally Feldman is senior fellow in creative industries at the University of Westminster.

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