On Beyond the Academy
When university profs don't discuss retirement, we don't discuss our hopes and dreams either
This year I turned 60, a birthday that starts a whole series of internal clocks ticking: five years to Medicare (if it still exists); ten years until full social security benefits (if they still exist). Then there is the realization that the end of my life is, while not imminent, approaching. According to the benefits calculator at the Social Security Administration, the average female-bodied person who is my age has about 26.1 years left to live. This is a lot of time, and barring unexpected complications, it will probably be more like 30 years if my robust mother is any indication.
Like many people, I aspire to using these decades well. Accomplishing this has something to do with how much work any of us has left in us, and if so, what that work will be and to whom, other than the students to whom many of us have devoted ourselves, that work will be meaningful. When I wrote a dear friend a few years ago to congratulate her on a well-deserved retirement, and to express my senior envy, she noted that I wasn’t far behind her. “Do the math,” she pointed out bluntly. “It’s closer than you think.”
I like the idea of retiring. But what does that really mean nowadays? Furthermore, since I have been working full-time in universities for only 28 years, I may have at least as many intellectually productive years left as I have already worked. Although I may not be as quick as I used to be, I may be capable of using my time better. I am better disciplined and less easy to distract than I was when I was younger. Time consuming things I won’t have to do in the last 30 years of my productive life include: come up for tenure, buy and sell houses, stay out drinking with friends, look for work, learn how to write a commercial book proposal, or experience the election of Donald Trump for the first time. This leaves a lot of time for other stuff.
I have always maintained that I don’t want to hang on in a university job longer than I am useful to others. Turning 60 has also made me realize that there is another dimension to this: I don’t want to work any longer than being formally employed is actually useful to me. Other people, of course, look ahead to retirement with dread. In 2014, then-president of the American Historical Association Jan Goldstein reported in “Retirement as a Stage in the Academic Life Cycle” (Perspectives, October 2014) that in a study sponsored by TIAA-CREF, the good people who manage academic retirement accounts, and conducted by the Chronicle of Higher Education in 2013, only 15 percent of faculty over the age of 60 wanted to retire at 65, and most of those people did not believe they could afford it.
“At the other end of the spectrum,” Goldstein wrote, nearly 60 percent of those surveyed “had made a firm choice” to work beyond 65 that went beyond questions of finance. The reasons for postponing retirement identified by this study were overwhelmingly positive: “professors enjoy what they do,” Goldstein pointed out. And yet, for most of the twentieth century, that joie de vivre was transported elsewhere after age 70, an age at which many colleges and universities saw as a natural point of closure. Now it isn’t. Why?
One reason is the penchant for deregulating things that, towards the end of the twentieth century, Democrats and Republicans came to share. Since 1994 it has been illegal for colleges and universities to impose a mandatory retirement age, a rule that was imposed on the rest of the workforce by Congress in 1986. Not inconsequentially, President Reagan, who had been elected at what was considered at the time to be the ripe age of 69, was 75 when this law was passed, and well into his second term. One prominent consequence of this for universities was that, although the academic job market had been lethargic for twenty years at that point, the bump in available jobs that was expected to occur in the 1990s evaporated. But a second outcome was that after 1994, there was no point at which discussion about retirement was natural and normal. One university where I worked forbade chairs to discuss retirement with faculty, lest someone bring an age discrimination suit.
That said, it is now generally acknowledged that older Americans have a lot to offer in any workplace, and universities are no exception to that. Presuming that we retain our sense of humor and some intellectual flexibility, we have a range of experiences that are of great use to students, administrators, and younger colleagues. We have seen exciting new trends in education and intellectual thought come, and in many cases, go; we have a good sense of what kinds of ideas gain traction over time, and when an intellectual field may have run its course.
Yet we also have appropriately selfish reasons for not retiring. “Having a real passion for their work and a powerful identification with it,” Goldstein reported, “professors worry about the consequences of cutting themselves off voluntarily from a work environment so bound up with their sense of self.” Retirement had become, as Carolyn Bynum had put it years before, an “unspeakable subject,” a “strangely taboo topic,” and “felt as a stigma by those who choose it.” Hence, it is not surprising that offering financial incentives for retirement have been more or less unsuccessful in persuading older faculty to pasture out, and that we weigh college payrolls down with salaries that could be used to hire two or more younger faculty long after we are able or willing to do the work of a younger person.
How interesting is it that academics as a group are so uninterested in having time to ourselves? It’s particularly intriguing since many of us long to devote ourselves to the things that brought us to academia in the first place – reading, writing, conversation, intensive teaching, various forms of cultural and civic engagement – that the current pace of academic life, with its overstuffed classrooms, larger administrative loads, shrinking full-time faculties, and endless digital homework precludes? So here are a few things I would like to propose that institutions could do to jumpstart a conversation about retirement.
Offer older faculty the opportunity to train and earn a degree in a field they have always wanted to work in. My inspiration here is Nell Irvin Painter’s Old in Art School: A Memoir of Starting Over (Counterpoint: 2018). Painter returned to school after a career as a distinguished historian to earn a BFA at Rutgers and an MFA at Rhode Island School of Design. Having spent a lifetime wondering what her life would have looked like had she not blown off her sculpture class at Berkeley as an undergraduate, Painter is now working more or less full-time as an artist in Newark, NJ, having in some ways fused her old life as a historian with a new life as a maker of visual art. She brought a long life of researching, studying and writing about race and African American history to her creative practice, something many of her teachers and fellow students found just as jarring as having an old lady in the classroom. But it also meant that she brought a kind of deep knowledge, determination and grit to the project of becoming an Artist that the young people who are valued in the art world have not had the time to accumulate.
Surely keeping someone on salary, and paying their tuition, for three years, is thriftier than paying them for several decades? Me? I would like to go to law school or journalism school, and would consider a career reboot ample payback for a scheduled retirement. And, like Painter, I can imagine other forms of citizenship which both my background as a historian and also my as-yet underexploited talents might be useful to.
Offer faculty research and travel support beyond retirement if they agree to retire by a certain age. It isn’t just the university community that many potential retirees fear losing, it is a whole professional world. As someone who has been running an Annual Meeting program committee for a scholarly association, it is nearly impossible to cajole retired people to attend, something that is a real hindrance to creating panels that examine scholarly fields over an arc of more than 25 years. I acknowledge that attending a scholarly meeting may genuinely not be on the top of a retiree’s list of preferred activities, but the fact that it is also expensive and not tax deductible is also an issue.
When building and renovating new campus facilities, consider building in small offices and studios for faculty where we can go to continue our work. They don’t have to be huge, and they could even be collective work spaces where retired and part-time faculty mingle. But I suspect many of us fear the isolation of retirement as much as we do the idea of not having a job.
I’m not advocating that people retire from university positions if they don’t want to. But the fact that we don’t discuss it is a problem. More importantly, it is a problem that – because we discuss retirement in only glancing ways – there is almost no cultural or financial support for doing it, beyond what an individual has been able to strategize on their own.
Claire Potter is professor of history at The New School, and Executive Editor of Public Seminar. You can follow her on Twitter. An early version of these thoughts appeared in a post at my Chronicle of Higher Education blog, Tenured Radical, on January 27, 2013.