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.
Associate Professor of History, Program Director of Canadian Studies