Thursday, February 23, 2012

Just Retire Already

Lots of link posts lately, so I'm going to stir the pot a bit.

This past weekend, I caught a Star Trek: TNG episode titled 'Half a Life'.  Long story short, Counselor Troi's mother Lwaxana falls in love with Alien Scientist, Ph.D., who is conducting some research on the Enterprise that will hopefully save his planet's dying star.  Unfortunately, that scientist is only a few days from turning 60, upon which he must throw a big party and then take his own life so as not be a burden to his society.

The episode sparked two conflicting thoughts for me.  The first being that Lwaxana Troi was right, there is still a lot of life to be lived after 60.  Personally, I'd like about 30 more years past that.  Plus, the scientist was still conducting useful research on how to save his planet, so it really was a waste for him to off himself.  But my second thought was darker, more selfish.  My second thought was about how many open jobs there would be if our society had the same practice.  You turn 60, we throw a party,  you reflect on your successful career, have some drinks and some laughs.  Then you head home, do what you have to do, and never have to worry about inane colleagues,  faculty meeting fights,  pampered undergrads or ever teaching that intro class again.  A new faculty line opens and the cycle repeats. 

Fortunately, our society has settled on something called "retirement" and not ritual suicide.  Yet for some (not all) faculty members, it may has well be the same thing.  There are several incredibly ancient faculty members that totter about at my doctoral R1. They last published decades ago, their salaries are six figures, and their teaching evals are absolute shit.  I know this because I was occasionally their TA.

Take Dr. Ancient Silverback.  Dr. Ancient had been in the department longer than anyone else.  He was a full professor before I was born.  Don't get me wrong, I liked Dr. Ancient, he had some great stories, and was a generally decent human being.  The problem was that Dr. Ancient liked to use the class lecture time to talk about whatever he thought was interesting, and usually this wasn't relevant to the course topic or the textbook. In fact, it was more like story hour for the undergrads who were forced to show up due to the mandatory attendance policy. So it was up to us lab TAs to actually cover the book content AND the hands-on activities, once a week, in the labs. Generally, students would spend more time on the lab evals complaining about Dr. Ancient's aimless lectures than commenting on the labs.  Still, it was a paycheck and decent teaching experience.  Yet some of the undergrads had the audacity to complain about the course to the chair.  The chair's response was predictable: "Oh, that's just  how Dr. Ancient does things.  We're just trying to run out the clock until he decides to retire." Last I checked, Dr. Ancient is still tottering onto campus, teaching that class.  Us TAs actually had a bet going as to who would knock on the office door and find Dr. Ancient dead.

Personally, I believed Dr. Ancient avoided retirement because the university was his only social outlet.  He taught that one class, was paid handsomely for it, and hardly had to do anything else. From his perspective, it is probably as close to an ideal 'retirement' as one can get, without actually doing so.

For everyone else in the department, it's a faculty line that could be productive again, if he'd just retire already.

*edited - I actually wrote this long before Calico's post on Ralph, but we posted them at almost the same time. I think they compliment each other nicely. I'm glad that Ralph got to spend some quality time enjoying retirement and reflecting on a successful career.


  1. As someone who's far closer to retirement than you are, I can offer a bit of perspective. It's not only a social outlet that profs may crave.

    Retirement is not feasible until at least 65 for many people, because that is the age at which medicare kicks in. I couldn't retire if I wanted to until that point. Social Security doesn't hit until 67 for my age group, and for yet another group of people, retirement is not feasible until then. So, 67 is now the "minimum age" to have a comfortable or even possible retirement.

    If Silverback is collecting social security, he is making a very good living indeed. It's hard to give that up, especially if you like your job.

    Also, some people in certain pension systems have pension-related considerations with regard to retirement. If you think a silverback prof that should retire is a problem, try dealing with a silverback administrator.

    My friend teaches at a school where the associate dean is miserable at his job--he basically wanted it so he could run up his salary for a few years so that his pension would be "worth" more. He spends most of his time in his office writing short stories. He's fully vested, but he's only in his late fifties. He hates his job, but he basically has to keep it until he retires, now, as if he goes back to teaching that will cut his retirement benefit radically, because the benefit is based on your highest pay over the few years before retirement. He can't go back to teaching. It would cost him at least 20k a year in benefits. So he just stays on, making everyone miserable. And he'll be there until the dean pushes him out, which he won't.

    I'm going to stay in my job until they take me out, feet first. Why? Because I can't retire until 67 anyway, and if social security is still solvent, I will actually be making a huge amount of money by working and collecting ss as well. I don't necessarily think it SHOULD be that way, but if it is, well, I'm going to start going on cruises twice a year and purchasing a nice new car every four.

    The other thing is this: I'm not giving up my tenured position on the "hopes" that they'll hire some fresh-faced kid in a tenure line to "help" my department. It's just as likely that in 20 years they'll hire some adjunct to teach my courses on the internet from Rhode Island. Every person in a tenure line owes it to the profession to stay in that tenure line as long as reasonably possible.

    In closing, I'd also like to point out that it's not only aged profs that spend their time running out class minutes talking about whatever interests them. That's not an age-related thing when it comes to professors.

  2. Stella,

    I hadn't even considered the "keeping tenure lines there as long as you can" line, but shit, you're absolutely right. I'm utterly peeing my pants in the dark terrified by my state's official statement that college courses should be completely standardized (at the freshman level now, who knows for later) so that anybody can teach them--good adjunct or bad adjunct. The only thing standing between me and my compatriots and that now is our tenure contracts and ability to say no. I do not want to be paid ANY salary to do nothing but deliver pre-written modules.

    That said, my job is one of the things that I enjoy most about life. If, some day, I can spend most of my job time teaching undergrads exactly the way I damn well please and not have to deal with departmental bullshit that would be wonderful. That's the old age that I want for myself.

    Many of the women in my family expire in their early 60s (mostly because they don't work, never worked, and for some reason at that age would all become obsessed with their fading beauty and start starving themselves--I wish I was kidding. My mom is likely to be the oldest lived female in our family and first to die over 70 pounds in decades) and I see their late lives of Oprah, local news, and days spent chasing the latest beauty cure as a shame.

    They had knowledge and wisdom that was entirely lost, both to themselves and others.

    I will not return to my house at the age I am told by society I should retire and become invisible, cut off from what made my life meaningful for so long, and fade away. You shouldn't either.

    1. I will not return to my house at the age I am told by society I should retire and become invisible, cut off from what made my life meaningful for so long, and fade away. You shouldn't either.

      Oh, don't worry. No one's going to get me to do what I don't want to do. If they want me out they'd better find an angel with a flaming sword. Otherwise I'll be telling a lot of people, and "society" to fuck off.

  3. There's a lot to be said for letting profs stick around as long as they like, but there comes a point at which it's time to Just Fucking Well Leave. At a University Which Shall Not Be Named, a certain department lives in fear of the silverback they call Skeletor. This particular prof is eligible to retire but just won't, for no discernable reason other than to make everyone else miserable. Skeletor has a wealthy spouse and makes about twice as much as the department's typical faculty member (partially due to having granted itself a huge raise using all the money available for department-wide raises these many years ago), drove off at least one (and now it looks like two) other faculty members, is reviled by all its students, is loathed by the support staff, and won't modernize the nearly moribund academic program it runs. Furthermore, Skeletor has monopolized three classrooms' worth of space that a square-footage-strapped administration can only eye lustfully. Mandatory retirement isn't a good thing...but sometimes, just sometimes, a boot should be applied to an ass.

  4. I love that episode of star trek, becuase I've seen it three times by accident and all three times it has inspired something really interesting. Looks like this is a fourth, since Bison has presented this query.

    It seems to me that college is not really about teaching any more. The most celebrated professors in colleges are those who have fascinating books out and terrible, terrible teaching styles. Tottering applies to more than just the silverbacks. Their research really is fascinating. But when it comes done to it, the things they discuss in class have nothing to do with getting students jobs or enhancing our civilization. It's a problem.

    I do think that teaching ought to be left to the young and nimble, with a class of researchers that rotate until they get to a certain age, after which they focus more and more on research until Death reaches out on hand and takes a hold of their ear.

    Very provocative, this. I cannot name a single person over 60 that I appreciated at a teacher, but a handful that I appreciated as continued researchers.

    1. Eesh, and now I've read the post below this and I rescind my terrible comment that no one over 60 should be teaching. Tch, tch.

  5. I only discovered my current field of interest (line of work etc.) thanks to a 'Silverback', doing a little teaching whilst holding an emeritus position. He felt that we needed some context, so his first lecture took us back to basics, which included a few minutes on the subject area I now work in... he was a lousy presenter (he spoke to his tie (blue and silver stripes, worn with a yellow-and-block hounds-tooth fabric waistcoat (vest for Americans) over a checked shirt in shades of mustard and beige - I can picture it now - and put half his overheads on the projector upside-down (yes, I'm old)), but his material was fascinating, and for my next several years in the department I really appreciated the breadth he brought to the subject - academics have been getting narrower in their interests for multiple decades, at least in my general area of study.

    So I find it hard to condemn all Silverbacks. Of course, in the UK, we've had mandatory retirement ages until recently, so they usually have to fight to stay and it's mainly the good, engaged ones who do that...

  6. Isn't all the nasty--but true--stuff y'all are saying about some silverbacks equally nasty and true about some young and some middle-aged faculty members as well?

    OK, CM isn't a blog about critical thinking; it's a place to bitch, but, jeeeez, Grumpy Academic ("So I find it hard to condemn all Silverbacks"): Mighty white of you, pal. Thanks.

    1. So many silverbacks richly deserve it. There are also mechanisms for removing young 'uns who commit these sins.

  7. Frankly, I'll be happy if I'm able to retire before I become a doddery old silverback. A few decades hence, I think many of us will look back on those poor unfortunates who were forced to retire with something like wistful envy.

  8. I always hated ST:TNG because it was so unoriginal. Wasn't this the plot of "Logan's Run," except that the magic age was 30?

    American rocket pioneer Robert Goddard had an interesting perspective on this. At age 17 he read “The War of the Worlds” by H. G. Wells, and he was inspired to build a rocket to fly to Mars. He spent his life developing every aspect of the technology to do it: every rocket that now flies is a Goddard rocket. Later in life, he wrote a fan letter to H. G. Wells that said: "...How many more years I shall be able to work on the problem, I do not know; I hope, as long as I live, there can be no thought of finishing, for 'aiming at the stars,' both literally and figuratively, is a problem to occupy generations, so that no matter how much progress one makes, there is always the thrill of just beginning."

    Goddard spent much of his career working in obscurity. He was adverse to publicity, because early in his career, the New York Times ridiculed him as “the Moon rocket man.” In 1921 the Times claimed that a rocket could not fly in space, because: “Professor Goddard does not know the relation between action and reaction and the need to have something better than a vacuum against which to react. He seems to lack the basic knowledge ladled out daily in high schools.” (They may have been right on that last.) Goddard reacted by testing a rocket in a vacuum chamber, to show that the New York Times didn’t understand conservation of linear momentum. The Times did print a retraction in 1969, just after the launch of Apollo 11.

    Goddard also got to live long enough to see the implications of his work. Just before he died in 1945, he got to inspect a captured German V2 missile, the first rocket capable of reaching space. He was amazed at the similarity of its design to his own: while he might have been derided in his own country as a crank, Werner von Braun and his team in Germany read his papers.

    I still have a strong sense that the best may still be ahead for me, even though I’ve been interested in astronomy since I was 5. When I formally do retire, which I won’t be eligible to do for at least 10 years, I probably will give up much of the astronomical observing I now do. This is because although when I was a teenager I discovered I was very good at staying up all night (the time now when I frequently comment on CM), the older I get, the older it gets. A fine thing for me to do when I retire would therefore be to study all the math I was too impatient to get to when I was a student, and use it to do theoretical astrophysics, with the goal of making some sense of the mysteries I’ve spent a lifetime discovering. I don’t think it’s a bad way to be, at all

    One thing that keeps me going now is that my undergraduate education was marred by several nasty bits of deadwood who were abusing their tenure, coasting to retirement, not doing research and teaching badly. One of them showed us how to develop photographic plates during the digital revolution of the ‘80s: the words “electronic imaging” never passed his lips. I resolved never to be like that, and I think I’ve succeeded. Life loves its ironies, of course. Now, I have no shortage of students who squander the opportunities I knock myself out to make for them. Because of them, I sometimes think ten years won't be soon enough.

  9. I alternate between R &/or G's attitude -- fearing I won't be *able* to retire until long after I'd be happy to do so -- and (the more plausible scenario) fearing that someone else will decide it's time for me to retire long before I can afford to so so (unlike Stella, I don't have tenure, and quite possibly never will; whatever tenure lines are created and/or maintained are probably more likely to go to younger scholars). I suspect the pressure for older people to retire will only increase as the snowflake generation tries to enter the work force, and they and their parents look around for people to blame for the difficulty of getting and keeping work. So I guess I'm a bit leery of exhortations to retire.

    I also know people (mostly women, but some men) who *began* careers at 50 or older, and were just coming into their own at 65 or 70.

    But yes, there are some people who should retire, and can afford to do so. I just don't know how we encourage them to leave without catching others in the same net.

  10. One of our department was due to retire this year but has agreed not to do so for a few years because at the moment we're pretty much guaranteed to lose the position if he goes.

    My plan is to retire at 65 IF the university will promise IN WRITING that the department gets to keep the position, and hire my replacement in a TT position while I"m still there to see them do it. Otherwise, they can just keep paying me much more than they'd pay a newcomer, and they'll be carting me out of there in an ambulance 20 years on, or that's my plan B, at least.

  11. Okay, I'm gonna cut to the chase: Why is "silverbacks" acceptable, but none of you out there would write about niggers or faggots or cunts? Why are you so comfortable sniggling and chortling and overgeneralizing and stereotyping about ageism, when racism or sexism or homophobia are out of bounds?

    All of y'all are gonna get old--if you're lucky. None of y'all are gonna get ten skin tones darker or replace your penises with a vulva or change your sexual orientations.

    So what the fuck?

    Don't you realize that the youngest of y'all are probably about the same age as the parents of the snowflakes you're so fond of bitching about? Don't you realize that one of the (many) reasons your snowflakes treat you the way they do is that, because in their eyes, YOU're fucking ancient?

    1. And another thing: not all older colleagues deserve contempt, nor do they get it. Remember Professor "Lumpy," the "character" whose post I can't find?

    2. > All of y'all are gonna get old...

      That may be precisely the answer to your question. Age and experience are supposed to cultivate wisdom, and there is no fool like an old fool. They're supposed to know better! Also, although I will not give up my tenure without a spirited fight, we all know very well that far too many senior academics abuse their tenure.

      > Don't you realize that the youngest of y'all are probably about the same age as the parents of the snowflakes...

      I know this very well. Anytime I find myself looking at a student with lust in my heart, that thought reminds me to conceal it.

      > ...the snowflakes you're so fond of bitching about?

      Come now, Philip, they SO richly deserve it. Anyone should be better prepared for work and life than they are.

    3. "Silverback" describes an attitude, not an age. A silverback is a dominant gorilla (or possibly also grizzly bear), hardly a powerless or pitiful creature. They are typically older males, who have fought their way to the top over many years, with scars to show for it. They now rule the tribe with ornery chest thumping and shows of aggression, all the while fending off the younger males also trying to fight their way up and unseat them.

      I did a quick google search on age-ism and found many lists of pejorative terms and phrases. Silverback wasn't one of them.

    4. The College Misery glossary doesn't match Rosencrantz' definition, and I think it should be changed.

  12. I knew this post would raise strong feelings. I can't speak for all, but many Gen X/Yers don't believe that social security, medicare, or retirement will be around when we reach our golden years. It will be something else that is greatly diminished, and will probably make retirement as it is now look like a gilded age for those who got it.

  13. Last year the system I work for cut its contribution to my retirement account. Most of those in their 60s and beyond have had benefits beyond my wildest dreams. They are in defined benefit plans which are based on the average of the last five years' salary, so (at least until recently) raises and abundant overloads/summer pay gave them incentive to keep working. That plan was no longer available when I was hired. We're all in the crapshoot 403(b). Their sick leave accumulated until the mid-90s will be paid back to them in cash when they retire. That benefit was eliminated the year I was hired.

    So yes, those who could retire now will have substantially better benefits when/if they do, and like Bison, I am highly skeptical that Medicare, Social Security, or any other government safety net will be even close to the same level it is now.


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