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Nearing retirement doesn’t have to mean you’re ‘out of the game’

Written by: Graham Crow
Published on: 4 Feb 2021
  • Retirement hanging up boots

Source: iStock

Likening aspects of careers to a game can be a useful analogy, prompting numerous insights about “goals”, “players”, “skill”, “strategy”, “the rules of the game” and, of course, “winners and losers”.

This idea has been advanced through the sociological writings of Erving Goffman (who himself spent time working as a card dealer in Las Vegas, where he had the message reinforced that play is a serious business) and Pierre Bourdieu (who drew attention to people’s “feel for the game”). Game theorists’ models of successful strategising offer another source of such thinking with a longer pedigree.

The game analogy also helps in understanding what happens after careers are formally over. In a survey of recently retired academics conducted two decades ago, more than one in eight participants agreed that they felt “out of the game, no longer of consequence”.

The study’s authors, Barbara Tizard and Charlie Owen, rightly saw such end-of-career marginalisation as undesirable for those individuals who wished to maintain links with academic teams of which they had been a part, and for institutions that were missing opportunities to benefit from post-retirement contributions.

This might be expected to have changed in the interim because fixed retirement ages have been replaced by more flexible arrangements in most UK universities. As a result, those who wish to “stay in the game” as paid staff may do so. Higher Education Statistics Agency data show numbers of academic staff aged 66 and over increasing by almost 30 per cent in the four-year period to 2018-19. By contrast, overall numbers for all age groups increased by less than 10 per cent, and numbers of those aged 35 and under increased fractionally less than that average.

While absolute numbers of older scholars staying in post may be relatively small, the perception of early career scholars being kept waiting for their chance to “get on to the field” is real. One of the retired participants in my current study of later academic careers and retirement put it thus: “Being out of the game is a necessary stage to allow others into it.” Nearly a quarter of retired academics in my survey identified “wanting to ‘make way’ for the next generation of academics” as one of their motivations for retiring.

Of course, retirement is not solely an individual decision. Almost a fifth of Tizard and Owen’s participants identified pressure from their institutions to retire as part of their considerations, and things do not appear to be so very different now. The language of being “forced out”, “kicked out” or “got rid of” features in several people’s accounts of “hanging up their boots”.

In many cases, this relates to changes being made to the “rules of the game”, with much criticism levelled at the perceived proliferation of irksome rules and regulation. This is not unique to the current generation of retirees, as bureaucratisation and the extension of audit culture figured in the “dissatisfaction with the work situation” that was the most prominent reason given for early retirement by Tizard and Owen’s participants. Further back still, in 1992, the erosion of academic autonomy was part of A. H. Halsey’s narrative concerning the Decline of Donnish Dominion.

Just as in sport, academics who do not feel ready to retire when their contracts come to an end may seek new teams to join − and in the process challenging ageist assumptions about declining productivity. Just as a footballer is thought to hit their peak at about 27 or 28 years of age, certain academic disciplines are known for judging people’s best work to occur early in their careers, though these are contested notions and some individuals strive to prove the value of experience over youth.

However, at all career stages, there are numerous ways in which the “playing fields” are not “level”, and for those who wish to continue playing it takes determination, stamina and strategy when the odds are stacked against you. Many such veterans’ accounts of staying in the game also mention that most unpredictable element of games: the luck of the draw.

Academics for whom retirement may be on the horizon and who regard the prospect with anxiety should take comfort from the finding that many of their predecessors have made the transition to life beyond work and found it much fuller and more rewarding than feared.

Plenty of participants in my study present narratives in which they look back and wish they had taken the plunge sooner. Counterbalancing this are the accounts of those numerous academics who are working well beyond state retirement age and who do not feel ready to retire. They have found ways not only to stay “in the game” but to stay “on top of their game” − and remaining well integrated with other team members appears key to that.

Graham Crow is professor of sociology and methodology at the University of Edinburgh.