Not so retiring

I recently attended a small discussion with a group of United States university professors, and I suddenly realised that all of them were over 60 years old, and about half of them well over 65. All were however still active as full-time teachers and researchers. That all of these academics were in this age group was a coincidence, but in the United Kingdom (or Ireland) it could not have happened at all. The reason why it can in the United States is because mandatory retirement for academics was abolished in 1993. Some argue against the retention of this practice – sometimes using arguments that used to be deployed in very similar form against the idea of allowing married women to continue to work – but on the whole the principle is now well established in America.

Over here we are still much less flexible, and usually the system forces older people out of employment, except to the extent that it may not always prevent their working in return for receiving much less or even no pay. But leaving aside the fairness issue, do we not in any case need to re-examine our retirement assumptions? The idea of the old age pension originated in Bismarck’s 1889 law Gesetz zur Alters- und Invaliditätssicherung. This kicked in at the age of 70, at a time when the average life expectancy of those who had reached this age at all was 73. In Britain pensions were introduced in 1909, and again the pension age was 70. It has been calculated that if one were to apply the same actuarial considerations to today’s population, the pension age would be 76 (some have even suggested it would be higher, possibly over 80).

The retirement age has become a major casus belli in discussions about social benefits and in industrial relations negotiations. In France, improbably, the retirement age has actually been lowered recently. But leaving aside what one might call the welfare state aspects to this question, it could be asked whether we are well served by a system that forces people out of the labour market because of their age, and more particularly, whether in our universities we are impoverishing the quality of our pedagogical and academic offering. Is it time to think about abolishing mandatory retirement in our system of higher education?

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14 Comments on “Not so retiring”

  1. V.H Says:

    Are you mixing pensions derived from work and the State pension. It tends to be lumped together in our minds since they are both coming out of the same pocket as it were.
    In Ireland we had a Sovereign Wealth Fund for a few years. This was sold at it conception as a method for the protection of pensions. When people heard that they thought ‘hmm, that sounds sensible’. I know I did. However, what we hadn’t known was that the civil service had decided it was theirs. Do you think for one moment that the rest of Ireland would have ever feathered the nest of those vultures had we known that was what the Fund was for in truth.
    Here as in the UK the Social Welfare costs are huge. But and here’s the but, the amount devoted to what you term the Bismark old age pension is miniscule to that of the index-linked kings ransom of a pension handed over yearly to civil&public servants.
    All in all, what the general population put in, had it been managed by proper funds, would have yielded adequate returns to see most into the grave on their State Pension. If they invested in nothing more adventurous that US T-bills they would have retained the time value plus something to feed the kids compounded. But since it is taken into the general current fund as if it’s tax what do you expect.
    As to your US grey back Academicians. They aren’t working from choice I suspect. But I wonder has anyone done a crunch on the numbers between running a UK uni and a comparable in a US State. Not the Ivies.

  2. no-name Says:

    “Is it time to think about abolishing mandatory retirement in our system of higher education?”

    Yes, it is time to think it through and to act on a plan that sensibly abolishes mandatory retirement, allowing some mechanism for those now near retirement to opt to work longer. If I were on the verge of retirement right now, I would be terrified of what governments (and the IMF) would do under the label of “pension reform”. However, even if financial security after retirement were not so precarious, it would make tremendous sense for learned and productive academics to continue in that capacity on salary until retirement is chosen instead of obliged.

  3. Anon Says:

    I suppose it depends very much on your job and many people would worry about their capability to work beyond age 65. My mum was a nurse and looked very much forward to retiring as she felt that physically she needed the rest.

  4. Anna Notaro Says:

    The idea of the old age pension originated in Bismarck’s 1889 law Gesetz zur Alters- und Invaliditätssicherung. This kicked in at the age of 70, at a time when the average life expectancy of those who had reached this age at all was 73.
    Well this is hardly surprising at the time of Bismarck culture was far from being fully democratized through mass education, and what we now understand as ‘leisure’ in a popular culture context was exclusive prerogative of the rich. I think that understanding leisure is relevant to contemporary discussions about retirement age because “Leisure ..is integrally connected to wider relations of culture, status, and power, rather than being seen as some autonomous sphere of social life” Tomlinson, The game’s up: Essays in the cultural analysis of sport, leisure,and popular culture (1999, 64). This is not the place to expand on this, however it is worth saying that leisure is the evolution of the Latin tradition of ‘otium’ which, contrary to what one might think, did not mean idle time, otium was a time for artistic and enlightening intellectual activities, a retirement age might just serve as an excellent reminder to dedicate less time to the ‘negotium’ (the daily business) and pursue such intellectually stimulating interests freely. Sometimes the passion for our work blinds us to any other alternative ways to channel our talents and derive an equally rewarding satisfaction, without the constraints which any negotium inexorably entails.


    • That’s interesting. In the 1990s there was quite a lot of talk about the emergence of the ‘leisure society’, in which it was leisure rather than employment that would be the basis for recognition and self-respect, and in which personal ambition would be direct towards retirement or wealth that would remove the need for employment. On the whole that view was subsequently found to be faulty. Most people still saw their status and personal dignity secured by work rather than leisure.

      • Anna Says:

        That might be a very useful summary of what the discourse around the ‘leisure society’ in the 1990s was about, however what I had in mind was leisure as a cultural category and leisure studies (within the social sciences) which offer a bit of a more complex perspective on the relationship between ‘free time’ and work (this link presents some of the most recent studies in the field http://www.routledge.com/books/subjects/SCSL1020/) because it intersects with issues of gender (see the reference to married women and work below and status/power, as Tomlinson had rightly pointed out).
        The advent of digital technologies, with the often heard concerns regarding an ‘always online existence’ and our ‘availability’ to check work emails at any time makes the whole discussion about leisure very timely once again. One of the most interesting publications on the matter, The Internet as Playground and Factory, claims that the divide between leisure time and work has vanished so that every aspect of life drives the digital economy. http://www.routledge.com/books/details/9780415896955/
        No one would deny that status and personal dignity are secured by work, it’s the *exclusivity* of the work dimension that deserves to be interrogated in order not to deprive ourselves of those individual rights that, as you rightly mention below, nobody should sacrify, in the name of work or anything else.

  5. cormac Says:

    Were they also on full salaries, Ferdinand? I was most impressed with the number of active academics I encountered at Harvard that were over 65, but was too polite to ask this question.
    There is no question that such academics have a huge contribution to make, but the issue is whether the practice blocks the recruitment and career paths of younger staff.
    I suspect that many of the academics I encountered kept their office, research and some teaching duties, but were on reduced salaries, but I don’t know this for sure!


    • They’re all on full pay, Cormack. I confess I don’t go with the point about careers for younger staff. Nobody should need to sacrifice their rights. Forty years ago many people argued married women should not be allowed to work because they deprived others of employment. I think the labour market adjusted, and it would again if we abolished mandatory retirement.

  6. bspolicy Says:

    Very interesting post. Reading through it, I was about to raise the same question as cormac, with the additional point that removing the block might be likely to impact more negatively on the careers of female academics. What are your thoughts on the hypothesis that allowing the persistence of networks of men at ‘the top’ would result in a reinforcement of the glass ceiling?

    • no-name Says:

      One might try to argue from differential longevity statistics for women and men that if 65 years were not the arbitrarily set retirement age for both, the ranks of senior academic staff would tend to include more women than men as age increases, and from this claim, one might try further argue the probability that the increased visibility of women “at the top” would encourage balance at the entry level ranks, with the additional benefit of appropriate mentoring for those trying to ascend the ranks.

      • bspolicy Says:

        I don’t believe that the trend towards equality is moving fast enough for us to wait for this scenario to pay out. I think there is an imperative to take action. Furthermore, unless I’m mistaken, your point only really works if the majority of women continue to work at ages beyond the life expectancies for men. I don’t think this is realistic, or an ideal scenario for mentoring.

        • no-name Says:

          The point that an imperative exists to pursue balance in this context seems quite right, and is independent of abolishing a mandatory retirement age for academics along the lines of Ferdinand’s suggestion.

          The speculation I offered depends on the empirical claim that women outlive men and on the likelihood that women are equal to men in wishing not to be obliged to retire at the age of 65 years. Agreed, there is an implicit premise that individuals will tend to choose to retire when they eventually feel not fit to continue (maybe, also that women and men are equal in ability to self-assess fitness and equally likely to decide on retirement in light of a self-assessment that points to the benefits of such a course of action); however, the suggestion that this will occur at an earlier age for men than women seems realistic given the initial empirical claim and in the absence of clear evidence of inequality on the issues raised within the implicit premises.

          Separately, a position which supposes an incapacity of older people to mentor younger people is difficult to support.

  7. Dan Says:

    Ferdinand, I’d like to know how you think the labour market would re-adjust? Currently, you haven’t a hope of a university department making an appointment until there’s a retirement, and even then, you’d be lucky. How exactly would you prevent university faculty ageing, with no new blood coming in, young men and women with Energy, fewer family responsibilities, new ideas, a willingness to experiment and innovate, to place beside their colleagues’ wisdom, understanding and long-term perspectives?. Would it take 10, 20 years for the labour market to re-adjust?

  8. David Says:

    With proper workforce planning, workplace and state pension and people policies that support our economic needs, just about everyone who wanted to retire at a particular age beyond 60/65 could so so any anyone wanting to continue work could do so. The notion that age makes you stale, tired and lacking in innovation/energy kicks in at some point but varies hugely individual to individual – for some people/jobs it happens by 40!! It’s is no real argument, as CPD and PDP would still have to be evidenced plus we keep corporate knowledge and ‘wisdom’ which is worth having. So what’s the problem? As always lack of joined up thinking……just as we want people to save and make more provision for retirement but savings rates are lousy and tax incentives barely helpful!! What we can do as organisations is ‘show a lead’ by having people policies that enable such flexibility to be at the front end of strategy as a positive ‘offer’.


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