Why Don't Professors Retire?
It's illegal for colleges and universities to pressure us--but why hasn't the pandemic sparked conversations about what would make retirement attractive and clear the way for younger faculty?
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Caricature of Émile Zola by Charles Léandre, Le Rire (November 20,1897. Wikimedia Commons.
Fifteen months of pandemic restrictions have produced a phenomenon that may be unprecedented in American history: Americans deciding not to return to their jobs.
This year I turned 63, and my own internal clock, which was already ticking, has alerted me to some important markers: two years to Medicare and seven years until full social security benefits, should I decide to wait that long. Then there is the realization that the end of my life is, while not imminent, is approaching. According to the benefits calculator at the Social Security Administration, the average female-bodied person who is my age has about 23.1 years left to live. This is a lot of time, and barring unexpected complications, it will probably be more like 30 years if my robust mother is any indication.
Like many people, I aspire to use these decades well. But, how much work do I have left in me? What will that work be and, who will it be for? What will give my life the most meaning? When I wrote a dear friend a few years ago to congratulate her on a well-deserved retirement and express my senior envy, she noted that I wasn’t far behind her. “Do the math,” she pointed out bluntly. "It’s closer than you think.”
I like the idea of retiring. But what does that really mean nowadays? I have been working full-time in universities for 31 years, and I may have as many intellectually productive years left as I have already worked.
And honestly? I think I am more productive and creative than I have ever been. Time-consuming things I won’t have to do in the last 30 years of my productive life include: come up for tenure, buy and sell houses, stay out drinking with friends, look for work, learn how to write a commercial book proposal or experience four years of Donald Trump. Although I may not be as quick as I used to be, and I occasionally have to look up a word or a date, I use my time far better, and I know more than I did when I was young. I am better disciplined and less easy to distract than I was when I was younger.
I have always maintained that I don’t want to hang on in a university job longer than I am useful to others. But there is another dimension to this: I don’t want to work any longer than being formally employed is actually useful to me.
Other people, I know, look ahead to retirement with dread. In 2014, then-president of the American Historical Association Jan Goldstein noted in “Retirement as a Stage in the Academic Life Cycle” (Perspectives, October 2014) that fewer and fewer college faculty believe that retiring is even an option. In a 2013 study sponsored by TIAA-CREF (the good people who manage academic retirement accounts) and conducted by the Chronicle of Higher Education, only 15 percent of faculty over the age of 60 wanted to retire at 65, and many of those people did not believe they could afford to retire at all.
Yet it isn’t all about money, as anyone who talks to older colleagues, or is one, knows. “At the other end of the spectrum,” Goldstein wrote, nearly 60 percent of those surveyed “had made a firm choice” to work beyond 65. Moreover, their reasons for postponing retirement identified by this study were overwhelmingly positive: "professors enjoy what they do," Goldstein pointed out. And yet, for most of the twentieth century, that joie de vivre was transported elsewhere after age 70, an age at which many colleges and universities saw as a natural point of closure.
Now it isn’t. Why?
One reason is the penchant for deregulation that, towards the end of the twentieth century, Democrats and Republicans came to share. Thus, since 1994 it has been illegal for colleges and universities to impose a mandatory retirement age, a rule imposed on the rest of the workforce by Congress in 1986. Not inconsequentially, President Reagan, who had been elected at what was considered at the time to be the ripe age of 69, was 75 when this law was passed and well into his second term.
One prominent consequence of this for universities was that, although the academic job market had been lethargic for twenty years at that point, the bump in available jobs that many expected to occur in the 1990s evaporated. But a second outcome, which represents a serious structural and philosophical problem, was that after 1994, there was no point at which discussion about retirement was natural and normal. For example, one university where I worked forbade chairs to discuss retirement with faculty at all, lest someone bring an age discrimination suit.
It is now generally acknowledged that older Americans have a lot to offer in any workplace, and universities are no exception to that. Presuming that we retain our sense of humor and some intellectual flexibility, older faculty have a range of experiences that are of great use to students, administrators, and younger colleagues. In addition, we have seen exciting new trends in education and intellectual thought come, and in many cases, go; we have a good sense of what kinds of ideas gain traction over time and when an intellectual field may have run its course.
Yet we also have selfish and anxious reasons for not retiring: who will be our friends? Who will reflect our value back at us if we stop teaching, brokering deals on committees, or attending faculty meetings? “Having a real passion for their work and a powerful identification with it,” Goldstein reported, “professors worry about the consequences of cutting themselves off voluntarily from a work environment so bound up with their sense of self.”
These are things we should talk about, and yet we don’t. Retirement has become, as Carolyn Bynum put it years ago, an “unspeakable subject,” a “strangely taboo topic,” and “felt as a stigma by those who choose it.” Hence, it is not surprising that offering financial incentives for retirement, which occurred at many universities at the beginning of the pandemic, was not a successful method for persuading older faculty to pasture out. Yet all college payrolls are weighed down with salaries paid to people over 65 who are neither able nor willing to do the work of a younger person, large sums that could be used to hire two or more assistant professors.
How interesting is it that academics as a group are so uninterested in having time to ourselves? It’s particularly intriguing since many of us long to devote ourselves to the things that brought us to academia in the first place. Reading, writing, conversation, intensive teaching, various forms of cultural and civic engagement—these are ll cherished activities that the current pace of academic life, with its overstuffed classrooms, larger administrative loads, shrinking full-time faculties, and endless digital homework preclude.
So here are a few things I would like to propose that institutions could do to jumpstart a conversation about retirement.
Offer older faculty the opportunity to train and earn a degree in a field they have always wanted to work in. My inspiration here is Nell Irvin Painter’s Old in Art School: A Memoir of Starting Over (Counterpoint: 2018). Painter returned to school after a career as a distinguished historian to earn a BFA at Rutgers and an MFA at Rhode Island School of Design.
Having spent a lifetime wondering what her life would have looked like had she not blown off her sculpture class at Berkeley as an undergraduate, Painter is now working more or less full-time as an artist in Newark, NJ, having in some ways fused her old life as a historian with a new life as a maker of visual art. She brought a long life of researching, studying, and writing about race and African American history to her creative practice, something many of her teachers and fellow students found just as jarring as having an old lady in the classroom. But it also meant that she brought a kind of deep knowledge, determination, and grit to the project of becoming an Artist that the young people who are valued in the art world have not had the time to accumulate.
Surely keeping someone on salary, and paying their tuition, for three years is thriftier than paying them for several decades? Me? I would consider law school, journalism school, or some other career reboot ample payback for a scheduled retirement. And, like Painter, I can imagine other forms of citizenship to which both my background as a historian and also my as-yet underexploited talents might be useful.
Offer faculty research and travel support beyond retirement if they agree to retire by a certain age. It isn’t just the university community that many potential retirees fear losing. It is a whole professional world. As someone who ran an Annual Meeting program committee for a major historical association, I can testify that it is nearly impossible to cajole retired people to attend. This is a real hindrance to creating panels that examine scholarly fields over an arc of more than 25 years. I acknowledge that attending a scholarly meeting may genuinely not be on the top of a retiree’s list of preferred activities. Still, the fact that conferences are expensive and not tax-deductible is also an issue.
When building and renovating new campus facilities, consider building in small offices, co-working spaces, and studios for faculty where we can go to continue our work. They don’t have to be huge; they could even be collective workspaces where retired and current faculty mingle. But I suspect many of us fear the isolation of retirement and not having an office to go to, as much as we do the idea of not having a job.
I’m not advocating that people retire from university positions if they don’t want to. But the fact that we don’t discuss life beyond a full-time faculty position and that universities aren’t thinking creatively about incentives that move us out of tenured lines and retain us as community resources is a problem.
Claire Bond Potter is Professor of Historical Studies at The New School for Social Research and co-Executive Editor of Public Seminar. Her most recent book is Political Junkies: From Talk Radio to Twitter, How Alternative Media Hooked Us on Politics and Broke Our Democracy (Basic Books, 2020).
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