Should I Stay or Should I Go? Aging Workforce Creates a Complex Dilemma for Colleges

Academics have talked about an impending mass retirement of baby boomer professors for decades, but  young PhDs continue to wait for full-time, permanent positions to crop up. On Monday night, PBS NewsHour ran a short report on the “dilemmas colleges and universities face as their teaching work force is graying.” The report, part of an ongoing series from PBS about older workers, profiled a series of faculty in academia, some over the traditional retirement age and some not, in an effort to understand the issues colleges face as academics become a “graying workforce.”

According to Claire Potter, professor of history at the New School for Public Engagement, who was the only historian profiled for the report, “There’s a lot of rage out there about being trained for jobs that you can never have. Is it worth keeping younger people out, not giving them a chance to have full-time work, to develop themselves, so that older people can hang on to keep everything we love?” Paul Solman, economic correspondent for PBS, pointed out that “Professors over 65 have more than doubled since 2000. Some 40 percent of all workers say the will work past 65.”

But Solman’s data reflects a broad sampling of academic departments, not the history profession specifically. A few years ago, AHA Deputy Director Robert Townsend completed a survey of contingent faculty in the AHA’s Directory of History Departments. He found signs of a significant generational change taking place in the discipline. Over a third of the faculty- (36.5 percent) were under the age of 46, while 14.5 percent of the faculty were 66 or older. The survey found significant differences between the genders, however, as 19.1 percent of the male faculty were over the age of 65, as compared to just 7.5 percent of the women in the departments. In short, although the number of faculty working past retirement age is a small minority, there is a significant gender gap amongst faculty over the age of 65.

The short series went viral on social media, with academics weighing in on the issue of lifetime tenure. In the comment forum below the report, John Curtis brought up the growth of adjunct teaching, writing, “Older tenured faculty members are not “clogging the pipeline” as much as colleges and universities are keeping costs down by shifting to contingent employment.” While Potter argues that an aging work force results in a “break on innovation” in the profession as a whole, some faculty I talked to brought up issues that were ignored in the PBS piece. For some, just because they reach retirement age does not mean they are financially prepared to stop working, particularly as colleges and universities continue to cut faculty pensions. Financial issues aside, Lou Buffardi, professor of psychology at George Mason, pointed to more personal reasons for remaining full-time. In the report, Buffardi pointed out, “It isn’t just a job. It’s who we are. And to leave that is just tough.”

The PBS report reveals just a glimpse of the complex issues related to retirement in academia, and I urge readers to watch the report and weigh in, either on the blog or on Facebook and Twitter. How long do you want to work, and what issues shape your decision? 

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