When is the right time for academics to retire?

To remain carefully balanced ecosystems where experience and youth combine, should universities impose a sell-by date on academics?

July 6, 2017
Older man waterskis
Source: Getty

When to go? It’s a question that everyone faces at some point in their professional life – if they’re lucky enough to have control over the timing.

Many, of course, do not, as job security diminishes and career paths wax and wane.

It’s often said that today’s graduates will have an average of five or six different jobs over the course of their lifetime, with implications for the way they are prepared for life after university. In academia, meanwhile, it’s certainly the case that some of the specific skills required are changing.

But it’s also true that the fundamentals of teaching, conducting research, working with industry partners and so on aren’t going to vanish any time soon.

That’s not to suggest that academics face uniquely stable working lives. Far from it; the rise of casualisation, the leaky pipeline affecting women and the chronic mismatch between the supply of would-be early career researchers and posts available are all huge problems.

But, for those who prevail, there’s still a recognisable lifelong career to be carved out.

Get to the far end, though, and potential quandaries await. Academia is not a profession that comes with an obvious physical sell-by date, and there are many reasons why scholars may want to continue in their role for as long as the mind and body allow.

In a recent journal article, Ronald Pelias, a professor in the department of performing arts at the University of Louisiana, gives a personal take on what it’s like to approach retirement as an academic whose sense of identity is closely wrapped up in his job.

Pelias describes moments of clarity when it seems to him self-evident that it is either time to go or to stay put.

But each is a “momentary act of sense making, a narrative that won’t hold still”, he says, something he attributes in part to the open- ended nature of scholarship.

“The joy of academic life has always been that the puzzles in the classroom and in research never settle, never feel resolved. With each completed class or research project, questions linger. What seduces is the unattainable, the unreachable,” Pelias writes.

The result, for him, is an unshakeable desire to “hold on, wanting the challenges that never end, that I’ll never master, that come to me as daily gifts”.

These musings on one scholar’s internal tug-of-war are interesting in light of ongoing wrangling at the University of Oxford over its compulsory retirement age.

In our news pages this week we report on a ruling from a University of Oxford Appeal Court on one contested case. But the broader issues of when to go, and whether that should be imposed, are equally complex.

At Oxford, the debate has been cast in terms of bed-blocking by “old, white men”, and young guns being denied the opportunities enjoyed by ageing baby boomers when they were starting out.

This plays into the wider feelings about generational inequality that have come to the fore so dramatically in the political shifts of the past 12 months. The issue of retirement in academia is far more complicated than such a binary argument suggests.

But ultimately, the question of the right time for academics to retire is valid, and while it’s vital that experience and expertise are not summarily scrapped, creating opportunities for younger generations to flourish is crucial.

One idea mooted by Sir Malcolm Grant when he was vice-chancellor of University College London is an Australian approach to pre-retirement contracts carrying enhanced benefits in return for allowing for succession planning.

Another idea floated (to mixed reaction, it must be said) was grants for scientists approaching retirement to partner with a younger colleague and pass on their research.

Whether or not these ideas are practical or desirable, it is important that the concerns of younger generations waiting for their opportunity are not dismissed as impatience or impertinence.

One way or another, universities must be preserved as carefully balanced ecosystems where experience and youth combine to the benefit of both.

john.gill@timeshighereducation.com

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Print headline: The right time to retire

Reader's comments (2)

It's not just formal jobs. I work with an emeritus professor who is more than a decade past any 'retirement date' but who hangs on in various non-elected 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.
I've met many retired academics who use their time (and generous pensions) to continue doing research, going to conferences, etc. They can continue using the institutional affiliation and make a contribution to the field in that way. However, with one or two exceptions, I couldn't (and can't) wait for several colleagues to retire. I'm sure that there are other exceptions, but most of these colleagues have low workloads in comparison to the rest of us but very little incentive to perform according to the same standards that their younger colleagues have to meet, while receiving significantly better salaries and pensions. I also know an emeritus in his mid-70s who holds on to a voluntary role and shows no sign of wanting to retire from this.

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