Paul L. Caron

Monday, August 16, 2010

NY Times Debate: The Professors Who Won't Retire

New York Times Room for Debate, The Professors Who Won't Retire:

If tenured professors are retiring later, with some working well into their 70's and beyond, does that block the career paths of their brilliant young students? A recent article in The Chronicle of Higher Education examined the effects of the aging professoriat, and quoted administrators who said that turnover was crucial to hiring new professors. A TIAA-CREF faculty survey found that nearly one-third of the professors polled said that they expected to work until at least 70, compared with about a quarter of American employees generally.

While professors of any age despair at the limited opportunities for their students, do they see themselves as influencing this tight market? Are they? What are other factors involved?

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Theres a value in these 'old professors'. (No Im not old but mid aged). In many cases these are the most knowledgeable people in their field. Likewise many professions (eg Mathematics) you are 'washed up' in research by time you are 30. Traditionally these older Professors are then used in scholarship (who writes the textbooks eh?) and mentors to research for younger staff (who shows who how to research?), and to teach also (good, 'cos they know the most and arent just speaking 'around' a 'powerpoint' done the night before).
Comparing the academic situation to a corporate situation is the modern disease..what is 'productive' anyway? Publishing a paper? Tenure itself *does* have use...just look at the Countries where tenure has been removed in academia and the real problems that causes in those Unis..actually leads to mediocre research, low staff morale and poor *high order* teaching.
Academia has some rewards and the payoff is that those academics chose it for the lifestyle also that some deride..rather than get maybe twice the wage they could have in their given field, say in corporate research.
Economies are crying out for so called 'better educated' people.
The answer is for Govts to actually *invest* & create more academic positions by creating more Unis, and actually run the military like the military, shops like shops, hospitals like hospitals, and Universities like Universities.

Posted by: Jon | Sep 15, 2010 10:06:53 AM

laughingdog: I had a similar experience. Got my PhD in 1996 and left academia right away (no jobs).

A few years ago, I took a part time job as a adjunct to feel out whether I had an interest in academia. I noticed that in the department I was teaching in, of the 11 faculty, 3 were in their 70's and one in his eighties. I also learned that each of these four individuals were making well over $100k (I was paid 4k for the course), did no research, never came in to the department and had poor teaching evaluations.

In short, there were blatantly exploiting the tenure system and the absence of mandatory retirement by retiring on the job, at full salary.

I quickly lost my thirst for the acadmic life.

I know of no other profession that so ruthlessly exploits newcomers (junior faculty, adjuncts) and customers (students, their parents and taxpayers) for the benefit of a few coddled insiders.

Posted by: maddog | Aug 18, 2010 3:37:57 AM

I have been agitating for a general drainage of the academic swamp for some time now. I say fire all of them and devil take the hindmost.

We have an educational system that is so dysfunctional that it appears to have been designed by our worst enemies.

Professors who give lectures? Why can't they be replaced by DVD players?

Students who major in ***** studies? Why can't they stop paying tuition and start working as baristas right now?

What about the scholarship? What scholarship? Legal scholarship is useless glub. I do not know a single practitioner who reads academic law reviews.

Henry VIII restored England's finances by confiscating the property of the monasteries. How much money is in the University endowments?

Posted by: Walter Sobchak | Aug 17, 2010 7:23:04 PM

Agreed, its all about tenure... not retirement.

Posted by: Email Marketing | Aug 17, 2010 5:13:09 PM

My wife's uncle has been a professor (and tennis coach) at his university since 1960. He's thinking about hanging it up next year. I suppose if one is in good health and happy with one's work, what's the point of retirement?

Posted by: RosemontDad | Aug 17, 2010 2:37:56 PM

Georgiaboy61, is it possible that age discrimination means you cannot be fired because of age? Surely you do not want to hire a 60 year old person who wants to become a firefighter.

Posted by: George Volski | Aug 17, 2010 1:02:15 PM

Of course they're going to work until age 70 or beyond. It's one of the cushiest jobs ever. You get a nice quiet office that is filled with your books and meaningful memorabilia. You can keep your door closed (until the dreaded designated meeting hours with students -- if you have any). You take breaks when you want, nap when you want, work outside if the weather is nice. And when not doing all that you get to read on a subjects that really interest you. As the saying goes, "it ain't digging ditches for a living."

(And, yes, this is based on first-hand knowledge at 3 well-respected universities.)

Posted by: ESheehan | Aug 17, 2010 11:46:19 AM

Half Canadian, "Age discrimination is the most widespread sort of discrimination in the country, and it is tacitly condoned by the Feds. In certain occupations, IT for example, you're basically washed up at 40."

Right you are; I have been discriminated against in this manner as a forty-something myself on numerous occasions. The worst offender? The U.S. government. Regardless of performance, no one over the age of 35 may become (with some exceptions) a police officer, firefighter, soldier, or tradesman here in IL or the USA generally. Certain other govt. positions are age-limited also, in the FBI, USSS, Customs and BP, CIA field agents, and a few others. The govt. prohibits age discrimination and (somewhat unsuccessfully) enforces policy with the EEOC, but conveniently exempts itself from EEOC rules and regs. Private-sector age bias is also common, especially in certain industries as you note, if less blatant.

Posted by: Georgiaboy61 | Aug 17, 2010 11:42:27 AM

I had an option today to take a workshop on "How to recognize an unusually distressed student, what options you have in dealing with a distressed student, and what services are available on campus." Somehow I did not bite. Too bad as it could be applicable to unusually distressed commentators on blogs.
Diversity is old news, unusual distress is in.

Posted by: George Volski | Aug 17, 2010 11:01:24 AM

Aren't people going to need to work longer if we are to fund Social Security?

Posted by: Barry Dauphin | Aug 17, 2010 10:48:35 AM

Laughingdog, you only waited 7 years. No wonder you couldn't find a job!

I'm actually reminded by this of stories of academic medicine I've heard in Great Britain.

Basically there, the only way TO get promoted is for some older professor to die.

Then you get the daisy chain where the tenured old geezer (who hasn't done any productive work in 20 years) boxes, then he's replaced by the junior professor, the jr is in turn replaced by the associate, and then finally ONE of the many star young physicians gets a track at an associate professorship.

Its not an ideal system, but everyone participating is an adult (presumably a smart one), and knows the rules.

My take on this is not to reinstate mandatory retirement ages, but just to rethink tenure. If someone is productive in their 80s, and wants to work, let them do so. If they're a lazy do-nothing in their early 50s, show them the door.

That's how it works. . .well just about everywhere. . .except maybe for academia and some gov't sinecures.

Posted by: Looking closely | Aug 17, 2010 10:35:51 AM

Living 30 years or so in 'retirement' is absurd.

If people are going to live to be 90-100; then we have to rethink retirement... and yes, people will need to work longer.

Anyway, it gives students more time to get ready before taking over. Maybe we can start a new tradition of 'encouraging' (re: insisting) that people who want to be professors take a real job... out in the real world... for 5-10 years... I’d love to see future professors forced to take a diversity class while working for a corporation..

Posted by: Thomass | Aug 17, 2010 9:56:04 AM

I suggest all conservative leaning professors do not retire and teach until the chalk is forcibly taken from their cold fingers. That is the only way to restore political balance in universities. The lefties are too weak to compete with us this way.

Posted by: George Volski | Aug 17, 2010 9:54:56 AM

It's not that some of my colleagues are old [I'm old enough myself], it's that they've been mailing it in for years.

In a few instances, once they got tenure the ceased doing anything that they couldn't be easily made to do. One who was finally 'eased' out this past year seemed to have a hobby of defending grade challenges [his grading appeared to be all but random] and filing grievances.

He showed videos [on which the students were never tested], or at least the grad assistants did, and his lecture notes were crumbling from age.

Sheesh. I also know of at least two older profs who certainly seemed to be suffering from dementia their last two years or so.

Posted by: jorgxmckie | Aug 17, 2010 9:44:50 AM

Age discrimination is the most widespread sort of discrimination in the country, and it is tacitly condoned by the Feds. In certain occupations, IT for example, you're basically washed up at 40.

Posted by: SteveM | Aug 17, 2010 9:24:05 AM

From an economical point of view, this makes sense. The longer they can forgo drawing on their pension/retirement funds, the better.
Plus, if they aren't on Medicare or Soc Sec, it makes these programs more solvent. The US government should be pushing all people to work until 70.

Posted by: Half Canadian | Aug 17, 2010 8:53:48 AM

In 1991 I decided to go for my PhD, and my advisor told me "In ten years there will be plenty of jobs, because all the old professors will retire."

In 1996 when I graduated, my advisor told me "In ten years there will be plenty of jobs, because all of the old professors will retire."

In 1998 when I left academia because I was sick of temporary positions, my advisor told me "In ten years there will be plenty of jobs, because all the old professors will retire."

This year my advisor retired (an unusual event in his department), and I told this story at a banquet for him. Later he took me aside and said, "In ten years there will be plenty of jobs, because all the old professors will be dead."

Posted by: Math Grad | Aug 17, 2010 8:49:59 AM

I think the most repulsive of the articles you linked there would be the "Reinstate Mandatory Retirement" one. Forcing someone to leave because they reached a certain age, whether they can afford it or not, is as ridiculous as keeping someone around solely because they have tenure.

There should be only one question asked, with regards to older employees: can they do the job. If the answer is no, they can quit or retire. If they can, let them do it.

If someone younger can't advance because people aren't retiring, that's their fault. They either knew what the conditions were going in, and took the lower level job anyway, or they didn't even bother to do a little research on it before picking the field. Being shocked or upset that you can't become a tenured professor easily is right up there with being shocked or upset that it's hard to find work as a lawyer these days.

Posted by: Laughingdog | Aug 17, 2010 8:44:39 AM

According to MSNBC (, the average age of a Senator is 60. While this blog ( tells me that the average age of a full professor is a mere 58.7. Why they're spring chickens!

Posted by: Deb | Aug 17, 2010 8:28:23 AM

First it was the tenure system. Now it is those pesky old people who won't die or retire soon enough. Maybe we should stop looking for scapegoats, and think about constructive suggestions for improving legal education?

Posted by: mike livingston | Aug 17, 2010 6:58:10 AM