November 19, 2015

Aging on Campus

Headshot 3.13 cropcompressBy Karen Sternheimer

While attending a faculty meeting several months ago, some of the attendees commented about how fast time goes by upon hearing that a colleague’s son had recently married. When I commiserated, the others laughed and mentioned that I was too young to really know what they were talking about.

Where else but in academia is someone in their 40s a “young person?” Outside of a retirement community, academia may be one of the few places where aging is relative. I didn’t argue with them—I am old enough to feel good about being called young.

There are many professions where age isn’t a plus, at least after middle age. I know people in the field of information technology who have felt the sting of not being hired by people young enough to be their children, in part to the (often incorrect) assumption that older people do not possess up-to-date on technological skills. Last spring I met a television writer who wrote for one of the most successful shows of all time in the 1970s, but often omits that show from his resume in order to avoid dating himself and potentially being passed over for newer opportunities (he also has written for a very successful show of the 2010s).

So I feel fortunate to be in a profession where the aging clock doesn’t tick quite as quickly as it does in other industries. In fact, it might be harder to be a young professor who is very close in age to their students, at least it was for me. Now that I’m older, I tend to have fewer students challenge my knowledge or grading policies compared to when I was just starting. Some of our most popular professors on campus are at or near traditional retirement age and despite the gap in years between them and most students, the good ones continue to be able to relate to and engage people decades younger than themselves

Unlike some industries that make it difficult to work into older adulthood or jobs that are physically demanding and/or require long, inflexible hours or travel, being a college professor is a profession that is quite amenable to aging. Particularly for tenured professors, they have job security and often seniority that allows them to choose which classes they teach and when they teach them.

A few years ago, Fidelity conducted a study to gauge college professors’ plans for retirement. While 69 percent noted that they planned to continue working past traditional retirement age (age 65) for economic reasons, 81 percent responded that they were motivated by personal and professional reasons, including wanting to remain productive and loving their work (respondents could choose multiple reasons). According to this and other studies, the vast majority of faculty members planned to work past 65, and seemed to be happier with their jobs than those with corporate positions.

Sounds good, right? Colleges and universities have some concerns. As NPR recently reported, some schools are offering early retirement packages to try and coax some faculty members out. Newly minted scholars often face a difficult time finding academic jobs when senior faculty members stay on and new positions do not become available. As baby boomers continue to live healthier longer, this large birth cohort might occupy a significant number of positions.

But it’s not likely that younger employees is really what administrators are after—saving money in the long term is the likely goal. By hiring lower paid, temporary adjunct instructors to teach classes without benefits, it might seem like a cost-effective measure. An aging workforce might increase costs of healthcare and other benefits. Senior faculty sometimes receive more generous benefits than newer hires, as they might be grandfathered into benefits that institutions have phased out.

Senior faculty members play a vital role on campus. As an InsideHigherEd.com article explains, they often have “institutional memory” that is invaluable: they remember why rules, policies and procedures were put in place, and they are likely to know how the larger bureaucracy of the school runs. They probably have relationships with friends and colleagues throughout the institution that gives them important insights to what is going on throughout the school that can bridge gaps that sometimes emerge between departments. And they can be important mentors to junior faculty and students.

As people work longer, what other kinds of challenges and opportunities might emerge? How might that vary by industry? As our workforce ages, what issues might employers need to consider?

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