To Retire or Not?

November 25, 2003

I belong to a transitional generation of aging academics. We straddle two policies, wedged as we are between the era of mandatory faculty retirement that ended in 1993, and the new era of voluntary retirement.

When we joined academe in the late '50s and early '60s, we logically assumed that our professional careers would terminate automatically at age 70, as required by our campus employers. The principle of mandatory retirement was taken for granted; few, if any, faculty members questioned or challenged it.

Our older colleagues retiring in the 1970s and '80s left without protest. The legal termination of their careers seemed natural and correct, regardless of their ability or desire to continue working a few more years. Exceptions were made for a handful of stellar performers; but in general, the law-backed policy of involuntary severance from academe prevailed. A pro forma, ritualistic cocktail party or dinner marked the abrupt end of years of close affiliation with an institution and one's colleagues there. And so it would be for us, we thought.

Then came the surprising rulings of the 1980s. Congress voided the principle of mandatory retirement based on age -- with, however, a few categorical exceptions, such as airline pilots, corporate leaders, fire fighters, and, yes, academics. An influential lobby of campus administrators convinced legislators to maintain mandatory retirement on campuses for the sake of "hiring flexibility" and "fresh ideas."

From a managerial point of view, the administrators had a valid argument: Student interests change, new disciplines emerge. Campus planners wanted to avoid having their hands tied by professors refusing to make way for "new blood."

When Congress allowed the special exception for academics to lapse, effective January 1, 1994, a new idiosyncratic proviso took effect: Those professors reaching the age of 70 before that date would have to retire; those turning 70 after it were in the clear. In my faculty cohort, that meant those of us born after 1923, as is my case, were free to decide when to leave.

To quit or not to quit? Our younger colleagues of the next generation -- those hired in the late 1980s and after -- have never been psychologically burdened by mandatory-retirement rules. Their professional futures have always been open-ended. But those of us who won a reprieve, literally at the last moment, were left in a kind of limbo: We had been accustomed to thinking in terms of a mandatory closure, but were now left to fend for ourselves in unexplored territory -- that of unhindered choice, for which we were, psychologically, mostly unprepared.

In my case, in 1993, I turned 63. According to the old legislative calendar I would have been retired in 2000. Instead, now 73 years old, I am still employed full time, grappling with the question: To retire or not? It has been a complex experience, these last 10 years of deciding, hesitating, rethinking, setting, and postponing a "definite" date -- one year, two years, five from now.

Nor has it been a purely private decision. The outer world has had its unsolicited say, from colleagues and administrators to family and friends. With the coming of 1993 there was a distinct fear by management that I and my colleagues would stay "forever," permanently inhabiting precious faculty lines. These unflattering sentiments were voiced sometimes sotto voce and sometimes openly. We were described as "ballast" or "albatrosses." Hints, some subtle and some less so, were voiced by way of friendly or concerned curiosity: "So, you must be thinking of retiring by now," a question in the form of a statement.

However, as statistics emerged indicating that my generation of old-timers was actually retiring well before reaching the age of 70, the pressure to leave diminished. Indeed by the late '90s, as budgetary crises caused the loss of precious faculty lines, some administrators were relieved to see us hold on to irreplaceable positions until better times. Some of us were even seen as an asset -- teaching key courses for specific majors and special fields of concentration. No doubt moods and attitudes will fluctuate with the ebb and flow of economic (mis)fortunes.

If institutions have not been particularly helpful on the when-to-retire question, neither have families and friends. Well-meaning children and grandchildren will talk about how it's time "to take it easy," to devote more time to hobbies and travel, forgetting I have been travelling all my career as a guest lecturer and visiting professor. As for hobbies? Teaching and research have been, and remain, my activities of choice and continue to bring me deep personal fulfillment.

Why give up my beloved work? Why lapse into the silver-haired, armchair mode when good health dictates full-time continuation of what is a source of such happiness? Indeed, as long as good health permits, why cast aside a life in academe? It is my intellectual home. One cannot just turn off a lifelong vocation and substitute it with an artificial vacation.

As long as one has something vital to contribute -- half a century of classroom experience, decades of research still filled with unexpressed ideas in as yet unwritten articles and books -- why stop? Why abandon the satisfaction of the daily give-and-takes with students and colleagues? For golf? For Florida? For full-time grandchildren-sitting?

I pose the question to my much younger colleagues who eventually will have to grapple with this problem (if it is one). Theirs is the luxury of choice, and need not be the agony of indecision, if they are properly prepared, as we were not. I remain torn between two attitudes, between the occasional "it is time to leave" syndrome of the past and the "keep going" drive and dynamics of the future.

As always, however, there is an economic catch. Actuaries tell us that, on the whole, we live longer. To retire at 70 may mean 20 more years. Who, on average, has the resources to sustain oneself for two decades, given inflation, market fluctuations, rising health costs, and other economic uncertainties.

Common sense dictates, "Keep working!" For many that will mean increased pension checks. Only a few universities offer generous buyouts to compensate for the fact of a longer life in retirement. Isn't it time to give the problem proper thought? Unresolved, it will mean more and more professors postponing retirement for fear of impoverishment in very old age.

Henry R. Huttenbach is a professor of history at the City College of the City University of New York.