An age-old topic: to carry on or to step aside?

July 13, 2017

When is “The right time to retire” for academics? John Gill asks in his leader of 6 July. I can see where there might be exceptions to the rule, enabling a professor to stay on, but having an age limit in effect can be beneficial to older professors in some ways. If there were no limit, some might think that they ought to keep working, to prove that they can do it, and others might be encouraged to do so even if they felt like retiring. And besides, the main issue is that at some point professors should think about passing responsibility on to the generations coming up.

I have met many retired academics who use their time (and generous pensions) to keep on researching, attending conferences and so on. They can hold on to the institutional affiliation and still contribute to the field. However, with one or two exceptions, I could not (and cannot) wait for several colleagues to retire.

I am sure that there are exceptions, but most of these colleagues have low workloads compared with the rest of us and very little incentive to perform according to the same standards that their younger colleagues have to meet, while they receive significantly better salaries and pensions. I also know an emeritus in his mid-seventies who holds on to a voluntary role and shows no sign of wanting to retire from this.


The question of a sell-by date on academics applies not just to formal jobs. I work with an emeritus professor who is more than a decade past any “retirement date” but who hangs on in various unelected voluntary roles. Without formal rules for “when to stand down”, we have no way of forcing this person out. Others of the same generation have wisely bowed out, and are now remembered fondly. Academia is very bad at planning for and enforcing succession rules, to our detriment.


Re your news story “Oxford tribunal judgment rules against compulsory retirement policy” (News, 6 July).

For the most part, academics were never really meant to work as long as they do. If it were not for increasing longevity in the West, and professors having the money to pay for the healthcare necessary to sustain that, most of them probably would not have the energy and good health to be able to continue working anyway.

And there are the young academics on their way up – do they have the money for a good medical plan, working as lecturers and assistants? Or are they going to be struggling to survive, attempting to maintain good health under the NHS and to raise a family, while the wealthier, established professors hang on to their coveted positions, some of them just a facade of academic accomplishment, their best days behind them?


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