A Prof at 70: Having Fun, Feeling Guilty

In 1965 I got a job at a newly founded university in Ontario, Canada. I stayed at the University of Guelph until 2000, at which point I took a job south, at Florida State University, where I am now. My reason for leaving Guelph was quite simple. At that time, Ontario universities had compulsory retirement at 65, and there was no way that I wanted to retire. I enjoyed my job immensely and, as important, I had a second family. Had I retired on schedule, I would have been stuck at home with three teenagers. When, quite out of the blue, the offer came from Florida, it was, as they say, a “no brainer.”

Here I am now, 10 years later, turning 70 in a couple of months, having the time of my life. I am a historian and philosopher of science who works on evolutionary biology. Last year was the 200th anniversary of the birth of Charles Darwin. I went to Europe six times, to South America a couple of times, and to Australia. All told, I gave about 30 talks last year. I published about 10 books on and around the topic. That sounds like showing off, and it is a bit—frankly, much of the publication was of collections and second editions and the like, and there was a cluster precisely because of the anniversary—but it does show that I am keeping active at the scholarly level. Those who are reading my blog will know that my teaching is also very important to me.

And yet I am feeling guilty. The Chronicle has been carrying a series of articles on the crisis in the humanities—all of the grad students and no jobs. One piece, “We Need to Acknowledge the Realities of Employment in the Humanities,” by Peter Conn, a professor of English and education at the University of Pennsylvania, touches specifically on the issues raised by the end of mandatory retirement.

The slowing of retirement since the end of mandatory retirement under federal law, in 1994, has added another growing problem to the job-market mix. At the University of Pennsylvania— the only place for which I can get more or less exact and timely data—we have gone from having no faculty members over 70 in the School of Arts and Sciences, 15 years ago, to 28, or 7.3 percent of the 383 tenured faculty members, in 2010. And the median age of tenured faculty members has risen to 55.

He goes on to say that if the old faculty members retired, this would open up the possibility of 40 junior, tenure-track jobs at the university. He notes that research universities tend to have more older faculty members than other types of university, but thinks that over all we are looking at 3 to 4 percent of faculty (a “disheartening number”) who are over 70 and still working—and, as importantly, being paid.

Should I retire this summer? Let me make three points before I even try to answer this question.

First, I was against mandatory retirement way back in the 1970s when I was in my 30s. I am not some Johnny-come-lately on this issue. It was then that we were starting to take seriously issues like gender imbalance and the need to be more racially sensitive in hiring. Age was already starting to be talked about and it seemed to me back then that being old was in itself no good reason to deny someone work. After all, modern medicine was making old people much healthier—apart from anything else, my generation was the first to recognize the stupidity of smoking and to try (as I did in 1978) to quit permanently. If we could, why then should we not go on working if we wanted to? 

I also recognized that, a mere 10 years into the job, a number of my colleagues were getting bored and wished they could do something else. Frankly, there is not much else that a philosopher can do, but it did lead me to link my feelings about the moral worth of letting old people work, with an equal feeling that people should be able to take an honorable and financially secure early retirement if they wanted to. (More on this point in a moment.)

Second, even if I did retire—as, to be fair, Peter Conn notes about his own institution—you are living in cloud cuckoo land if you think that Florida State University is going to replace me with two junior, tenure-track positions in philosophy. Florida is a state where old people go to retire. We have sunshine and no state income tax. When Medicare looked as though it was under threat in the health-care debate, there was lots of squawking from this neck of the woods. Higher education is not a top priority. Thanks to budget cuts imposed on us by the state, we at FSU have had to fire 60 tenured or tenure-track faculty. My administration might be pleased to get back my salary, but the cash sure isn’t going to go straight back to the department of philosophy. That isn’t meanness or a lack of appreciation of the humanities. It is simply being grown-up about money.

Third, I am not going to retire voluntarily. If I have to live with the guilt, I will live with the guilt. Entirely of my own free will, I completely admit, after a rotten first marriage I married again—Lizzie—and we have three children. I have just paid for the graduate education of my first daughter (from the first marriage) and the undergraduate education of my second daughter (from the second marriage). I am now paying for the undergraduate education of my second son, and the third son is a junior in high school and just now (having recently taken the SAT) getting advertising brochures from colleges around the land. My feeling is that a middle-class person like me owes a kid one degree fully paid up if you can. But it doesn’t leave much by way of savings. I am absolutely not complaining, and when I do retire, I will have quite a reasonable amount of pension for Lizzie and me. Criticize me if you will for my selfishness in having five kids, and, not having a religious justification to fall back on, I am not sure I have an answer, but that is the way that it is. The Ruse finances are quite simple: money in, money out.

So what is to be said about the end of mandatory retirement? First I think it would be good—vital indeed—to get hard facts and figures. Perhaps they already exist and I for one would be most grateful if someone could direct me to them. How many people over 65 are still working? How many people over 70? And where are they working, and are they productive? I know that this is not the case for all. I know one chap at a major Catholic university who had to give his ex-wife all of his pension rights and now works on and on despite having done no scholarship for 30 years and being a teacher of a level of awfulness that defies description.  At the same time, can we get the flip side too? How many people take early retirement (let us say pre-65), where are they, and at what age do they get out? Moreover, would more people take early retirement if they could? How many women feel trapped this way because they did not start teaching until late and now need the pension to be built up?

Second, if this really is a serious issue—and until the facts and figures are in I am still a bit agnostic—then what could and what should be done about it? And what would be the costs, both in terms of scholarship and hard cash. To go back to Canada for a moment, by the 1990s, the department I was in was pretty good. We had, for instance, six fellows in the Royal Society of Canada. Then it was cleaned right out by compulsory retirement. Today, it isn’t bad, but there are no real heavyweights and it will be a year or two before there will be. The students are losing out but so also are the junior faculty members. I am sure I am not alone in looking on our job as very much like a craft where you learn from the older members—about writing for publication, for instance, and about balancing work with home, and much, much more.

One thing about Canada was that we didn’t have the inequalities of salaries that one finds in the States. I was made a full professor at 33, but when I left in 2000, I had colleagues who were associate professors who made more than I—because they had won teaching awards and spent time in administration and the like.  The payoff was that I was given a huge amount of freedom and people did not resent that I was on leave yet again and not contributing to the joe jobs around the college. Hence, when one started to think about drawing on the kitty to pay people off to retire in comfort (not luxury), there was not the sense of resentment that there might be if the money is first and last the criterion of importance. We were not socialists, in the sense of Marxists. But we were more into the European, welfare-state mode of thinking.

I am not sure how much any of this might be relevant or practicable down here in the USA. But if we do have a problem with old people in our universities, then we should be thinking about it. And we should be exploring possible solutions.  Everybody says that universities are inhabited by a bunch of lefties. If that is indeed true, are we not being hypocrites in demanding a capitalist mode of recompense when morality demands a more welfare-state approach? Perhaps there will be the need of some give and take—more giving than taking by my age cohort—but that is the nature of life. Until then, I am going to go on working, I am going to go on enjoying it immensely, but I am going to feel somewhat guilty.

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