equity · ideas for change · job market · open letter

An Open Letter to the Baby Boomers

Please, when the time comes, retire.

Three things prompted this post:

1. A longstanding concern for several young scholars whom I admire enormously, and the accompanying desire to be able to wave a magic wand and create them the jobs they deserve.

2. Recently, I attended a conference on Canadian Studies, themed to the 1960s. As an historian, I’m unaccustomed to having the audience be both scholar and evidence; but there were those in attendance who commented on papers about Michael Snow, federal drug studies, or Rochdale by recalling their own experiences (or their own entries into university-level jobs before I was born).

3. News items, particularly this one from UPEI this summer, about how universities (and other institutions) are grappling with the implications of the court rulings that deem mandatory retirement a rights violation as discrimination on the basis of age.

I do not argue that many older scholars remain absolutely capable of continuing to do their jobs and therefore it may be unfair to insist that they cease and desist. I do, however, insist that this is profoundly discriminatory in its own way: discriminatory and prejudicial against younger scholars.

When older scholars refuse to vacate their teaching positions with opportunities for tenure at universities, they are violating both a philosophy of institutional renewal and, more gravely, a principle of generational justice.

First, institutional renewal. I secured an academic appointment in 2005, after a postdoc and a year in limbo (also known as ‘working for the government’). My department hired three Canadianists in the space of four years, thanks largely to two retirements. I like and respect those two senior professors enormously, and they remain active in research and in public fora, but there is no arguing that the three hires brought new ideas for research and teaching, and new national attention to the department.

It was a healthy step. As an historian, you might expect me to argue more strongly for institutional memory than for institutional renewal. As the story above suggests, I would argue that balance is key. There are many features of the university structure that serve to protect institutional memory already; change is often slow, and highly considered, and that is a good thing. There are fewer features that guarantee renewal and – ironic for an institution that deals with teaching young people – the entry of younger scholars.

Which brings me to my second point: generational justice. This is a phrase a colleague of mine uses in our co-taught class, Introduction to Environment, Sustainability, and Society. In that context it generally means deferring costs we incur – whether economic debts or greenhouse gas emissions – onto subsequent generations. But it would seem to apply here, too.

If we believe that the university exists to generate new knowledge and to communicate past discoveries, then that assumes we need, and need to create, young scholars. After all, every serious research institution will defend to the death its graduate programs, as one means for generating new knowledge. But we then owe those graduate students the right to employment, to let them do precisely what we’ve trained them for. This generational question pertains to those of us hired recently, too, in a different way, since many of the same universities facing the ongoing costs of mandatory retirement are also citing fiscal crisis brought on by pensions plans. At a faculty association meeting last summer on the pension crisis, the man reporting on pensions negotiations ended his remarks with a grin and a shrug, saying something to the effect of “I don’t have to worry about this, since I’ll be retired by then.” Ha ha.

Whether by continuing to work or retiring, those in their fifties and sixties have far greater financial and professional choice than emerging scholars in their 30s who usually are carrying substantial financial if not personal costs derived from their educational path and career choice, and I’m not sure that’s entirely fair. Why is not emeritus status enough? The university signals its respect for professional accomplishment, and offers an ongoing relationship (that allows for part-time teaching and supervision, library privileges, etc; although at my university, no one – not graduate students, CUPEs, or emeriti have enough office space). The senior scholar can continue to research, publish, consult, and engage in the scholarly life of the community. If s/he does not wish to retire gently into that good night, or into an (as I – still thirty years away – imagine it) Elysian fields of leisure, golf courses, and Snowbird migrations, they are free to continue – on a pension larger than the full-time salaries of sessionals! – to work as they wish.

(One caveat: Please, work is not the only thing here; again, balance. A few years ago, a retired member of my department flew up to Ottawa to visit his daughter for Christmas. While there, he was waiting for a bus when he suffered a heart attack, collapsed and died. To my mind, one of the tragic elements of this story is that he was waiting for a bus to take him to the national archives.) Many of us – including your humble correspondent – feel overworked and under appreciated. And we worked hard, and often sacrificed, to obtain the positions we have. But at the same time, we have been incredibly fortunate: beneficiaries to some extent of historical circumstances, of situation, of timing, of fluke. We have a duty to share that fortune with the younger scholars.

So please, think about making room for someone else.

Claire Campbell
Associate Professor of History, Program Director of Canadian Studies

8 thoughts on “An Open Letter to the Baby Boomers

  1. What an interesting post, Claire! I wonder what the balance is between retiring late enough so that you don't entirely drain the pension by drawing from it for 30 years, but early enough that the optimum level of renewal/memory is maintained. My mom retired at 55, and so did my dad. They are going to be drawing pensions for a loooooooong time.

    And it's a quirk of the academy, surely, that the most 'junior' members of our profession are in their early or mid-thirties. If I was just to hang on as long as my parents did in their jobs before retiring, I would be 67 before tossing away my whiteboard markers. Yikes.


  2. While there are good points here about institutional renewal, I think the focus on retirement as a major cause of the lack of opportunity for junior scholars is misplaced and indeed dangerous.

    The main reason there are few tenure-track appointments opening up is because institutions are restructuring (slowly, without much fanfare). The work is there. Increasing student numbers, increasing demands for research production, increasing associated responsibilities (accountability, non-teaching services for students, committees, etc) mean that there is plenty of work for both senior and junior scholars.

    However, most universities are using less secure, lower paid employees to do that work. And increasing the workloads of the smaller corps of tenure-track faculty they keep (and renew, albeit at a slower pace).

    Focusing on retirement individualizes what is a structural problem.


  3. Great post. I know of a senior colleague who is refusing to retire until her Dean guarantees that her Department will actually hire someone to replace her. Her logic: her Faculty could save a huge amount by hiring someone younger; to date, the Faculty isn't biting, since they'd rather save the whole amount they are spending at present and defer additional obligations down the road. All of which is to say: unfortunately, positions lost through retirement are increasingly **not** replaced — or at least, are not replaced on a 1 to 1 basis. If all arts faculty over 65 in Canada retired I wonder how many positions it would generate in the end.

    The lack of positions for new faculty can't be explained entirely due to the elimination of mandatory retirement. I don't need to tell anyone reading this blog that there are larger, structural issues in play, which I think we need to always keep in view, even if we also want to draw attention to “generational justice.”


  4. A very interesting post. Years ago we had a very senior scholar agree to retire early if we hired a young scholar in his subdiscipline who was in the department on a government postdoc. I've heard of that type of arrangement working, too, in cases where the administration is looking a position for a spousal hire. But with the current economic situation I don't think positions that become “vacant” are going to be fillable for quite some time. That said, I'm certainly not going to be hanging odd to my job forever in the fear that the position could be lost if I retire.


  5. I was born at the end of the Boom — I'm 47. I've had a tenure track job with a pension plan since 1994. If I retired now, I'd be pretty poor. The Baby Boom generation spans two decades. People like me born at the end of the Boom came of age during the deep recession of the 1980s and faced double-digit interest rates on things like student loans and mortgages. Making a generational equity argument around academic jobs requires more nuance than blaming it on the boomers.

    As other posters have indicated, the dismal job market has less with a greedy older generation than with academic restructuring and the drastic decline in public funding for postsecondary education. Let's not forget that the Cameron government is borrowing heavily from the Canadian experience in its unfolding assault of the public sector.


  6. I completely agree that there are institutional factors discouraging replacement; and absolutely, there is work enough to go around. And to Lise, I’d point again to “when the time comes” – not necessarily tomorrow or yesterday! But I often have to caution myself against blaming “the institution” – at least, for everything, and God knows I still do it plenty. I rail against “the system” when it doesn’t hire people in a timely manner, when it doesn’t fund my program enough, when it doesn't participate in civil society the way I think it should. But then I go teach my classes precisely as I want, research what I want, invent ideas for my program as I can, and contextualize my life/career as I want. I’d prefer to think of the ownership I do have, as much as the constraints by “the man.” The institution, after all, is mostly us.


  7. As much as institutional restructuring is a problem, I would also like to point out that the phenomenon of people not retiring when the time comes is a big problem outside academia too. My generation (the 20-somethings) are having trouble getting work everywhere, and this was the case even before the current recession started. How many of us ended up working at Starbucks, or in my case Tim Hortons, after finishing our undergrad? Or some mindless job at an office which was a mental equivalent of an assembly line and paid less than most trades? Many of us have been educated for jobs that are not available. That's why many of us went to grad school. Are we going to blame restructuring for that too? In a sense, you probably can, at least partially, because I think our economic structure is undergoing a lot of changes. But what about all the people holding on to their jobs past retiring age because they didn't save enough for their retirement? There isn't enough fresh blood being added to workplaces everywhere, not just in academia, and the result is a lot of over-educated and very frustrated young people who feel like we are missing something.


  8. I don't think that you can blame people in their 60s for wanting to continue with productive careers, particularly when many of those people are women who delayed their careers because of gender inequities when they were hired.
    The example I know best is my mother, an academic who was a post-doc in her early 30s when she had children. She did get a permanent position, but her career progress was certainly slowed in her 30s and 40s because of the expectations that she be the primary caregiver at home. Now in her mid-60s she is hitting her stride (a peak that my father reached 10-15 years ago, because he didn't face similar delays earlier on). Do I think she should retire to free up space for a young person? No — I've thought for many years now that mandatory retirement — or expectations that more senior colleagues retire — should recognize the inequities of the system they entered into, not just the system they are leaving behind (plus, I want to have more senior women sticking around).
    Not to mention that I think it's overly simplistic to assume that retirements in a particular field will produce jobs in that same field. My department will lose at least three people in my field in the next five years. My colleagues and I will have to advocate for replacements in my field, but the decision will be made by the Dean. And the fact that we lost people to retirement is not going to be the deciding factor. Enrolments, demand for graduate supervision, are much bigger considerations. Chances are we won't get three new hires. In some ways I'm fine with that because interests and areas of study shift, and new hires need to reflect those dynamics.

    (ps. hi Claire!)


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