Should we abolish compulsory retirement for academics?

Here is a story from Australia. There are reports that the ageing academic population there is creating a time bomb for higher education. Over half of lecturing staff are over 50 years old, and as they move towards retirement there may be insufficient resources to replace them; and indeed the visible crisis in higher education is in any case prompting young people to look for other careers.

This is not a uniquely Australian problem. The age profile of academics in a number of countries and in several universities is a cause for concern, and I believe that it is true that lecturing is now a much less attractive career for those coming out of education. Of course we need to address this in a number of ways, but one option should be to look at the end of compulsory (as distinct from voluntary) retirement in universities. In the United States this has already been done, and the impact has been positive. Is it time to think again over here?

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17 Comments on “Should we abolish compulsory retirement for academics?”

  1. There are other forces at work: for example, an oversupply of younger PhDs, especially in Europe. Is there evidence that the aging of the US academy has been a good thing overall?

  2. Vincent Says:

    Are you advocating that if the person hasn’t reached into the junior professorial ranks 20 years after PhD then they should be retired on quarter pay.

  3. kevin denny Says:

    Some academics are clearly very capable, hard-working and productive at 65 so forcing them to retire makes little sense. But there are others who are well best their best-by date a long time before they hit 65. In an ideal world they would go graciously but often they do not, hanging on, using up resources, blocking new changes and generally clogging up the system.
    So compulsory retirement at 65 (say) seems a useful check to prevent the latter problem. The university should have the option of retaining people after that age.

  4. Al Says:

    Many of the retired capabilities are wasted when they would make great PHD supervisors?
    I know a retired Professor who told me that ‘they’ dont want him back in any capacity, even unpaid!!
    Saying that, the age profile within higher education should never be ignored. If there is a gap it should be dealt with. The Professors should never become an aristocracy with a 20 years separation from all around them.

    • kevin denny Says:

      Al, maybe “they” actually know something, maybe the retired professor isn’t as great as he thinks he is, maybe younger scholars need to be a given a chance to supervise PhD’s – they are likely to be much more familiar with the field that their distinguished retired colleagues.

      • Al Says:

        Maybe, or maybe not.

        But considering that I know the situation in a decent enough detail to know that he left an unfilled gap in expertise and specialisations.

        Now, if I didnt know the situation, I wouldnt feel justified in making a claim either way…

        I suppose it depends on the farmer in question?
        Are they out standing in their field?

  5. Al Says:

    Should those that retire earlier than the 65 and maintain a pension be required to provide service for their institution.

  6. Triona Brick Says:

    I definitely think it should be looked at. There was a programme on RTE a while back, it was called “The end of ageing” or something along those lines? Anyway it was saying that with all the medical advancements and new technologies there’s no reason the retirement age should remain at what it is. They also took case studies from other countries where people were working to older ages and it seemed to benefit all involved. One advantage was the older workers were able to impart their knowledge to younger workers. This would particularly be true of academia where ones knowledge base grows every day

  7. Jilly Says:

    I wholeheartedly agree that it would be good to have some kind of mechanism by which the ‘special cases’ whose energy and abilities are undimmed and much-wanted at 65. However, the wholesale removal of the retirement age strikes me as being yet more of the baby-boomer generation wanting to have everything they want, when they want it, often at the expense of those one or even two generations behind them. Post-retirement-age academics remaining in work en masse are filling posts and consuming scarce academic resources which are then unavailable to younger scholars who not only may have more energy etc, but are also in need of paying work, and don’t have the option of a pension to fall back on (pensions which the generations behind the baby-boomers seem unlikely to enjoy themselves at 65, despite having paid more into the system over their working lives).

    My understanding from US academic friends is that the unretired 65+ generation are widely viewed as a great menace by their younger colleagues.

  8. anna notaro Says:

    as far as the situation in the US is concerned, let’s not forget that, regardless of the no retirement age, many academics cannot afford to retire now due to the effect of the economic crash on their pensions. In the Uk the pension scheme is currently under revision…

    • Young Academic Says:

      Well, tough. And is the solution really to hang on forever, and squeeze an already crippled younger generation out of academia? Pensions wouldn’t be a problem, would they, if the baby boomers had made adequate retirement plans, instead of hoping to rely on reverse mortgages.

  9. kevin denny Says:

    65 is an arbitrary number (unlike 42). I believe that it was originally picked by Bismarck as the retirement age for the Prussian civil service and it all followed from there (urban myth perhaps). At the time life expectancy was pretty close to 65 if not less. Now we insist on not dying till much later so the ratio of pension-time to working-time is dramatically different. So there are good fiscal reasons to delay retirement.
    That said, my own view is that most academics are not that productive past 60. I hope I will have the grace to go quietly.

    • It’s not an urban myth, and 65 was not a random age. Bismarck had a whole team of mathematicians and statisticians working on it, factoring in life expectancy, affordability, etc etc. It has been calculated that, using the same criteria, Bismarck’s working group would today in Europe come up with 82.

      On post-60 academic productivity, I don’t agree with you. I have known some truly extraordinary academics who did amazing work well into their 70s.

      • kevin denny Says:

        I didn’t say all: but on average I think I made a fair statement. I am more familiar with technical disciplines and maybe it differs across people’s fields.
        The challenge is to find a mechanism for retaining the guys who are still rocking in their 70’s but getting rid of those who are not.

  10. Mark Dowling Says:

    Any possibility that staff kept on in a time serving capacity (given the cost and hassle involved in terminating them pre retirement) will now be fired because of the possibility of them staying on even longer? Will the Equality Authority have anything to say if the inertia binding the status quo is dissipated in one part of the education sector?

    I would concur that able and willing Professors should have a role where possible, supervision of PhDs being a good example, but simply extending everyone ad infinitum must surely introduce academic sclerosis where once new ideas found a voice on the retirement of a dogged proponent of “old school thinking”.

  11. Young Academic Says:

    As a member of the younger generation I find this suggestion outrageous. The statement that there are “insufficient resources to replace” aging academics is just false. How about the huge numbers of younger academics with PhDs for whom there are simply no permanent jobs left at the moment? The job market for younger academics is really tough and many people leave the field because of that, and not because lecturing is no longer an attractive career for younger people. Would it be attractive to you, if you were kept on short term contracts year after year, made to do endless postdoctoral or slave teaching appointments, had to apply for jobs constantly, with no prospect of security, no control over your future and no hopes of ever settling down? That’s the reason why most young people are forced to find new careers. I am dumbstruck that senior academics are blind to this, or are unwilling to acknowledge the hardships hundreds of young people are putting themselves through for academic jobs. The baby boomers’ unwillingness to retire will further inrease hardship and decrease job security at the lower end. Is this really what you want to inflict on the younger generation? It is injustices like this, and the impossible living conditions and low standards of life that drive young people away. Think again, and don’t just think about yourself!

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