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?