July 08, 2003

History and Demography

Her department has quite a few faculty members who are 65 or older, but Ms. Maza does not expect many of them to retire any time soon, because professors whose pension funds are partly invested in the stock market 'are reluctant to retire as long as the economy doesn't pick up,' she says.

-- Jennifer Jacobson, Who's Hiring in History?

Here is a delicate issue, so sensitive and potentially incendiary that I almost hesitate to raise it. But I know I can count on the readers of this weblog to discuss the matter with their usual tact and intelligence, and without descending into a nasty battle which pits the passions of callow youth against the wisdom of riper years.

In an article entitled "New Data Reveals a Homogenous but Changing History Profession," Robert Townsend reported that

One of the most striking pieces of information is the finding that the average age for historians is 51.8 years—the oldest of any of the fields in the survey and more than three years above the average for all fields. More than half of the [full-time] faculty in history were over the age of 55. Almost 45 percent of the historians employed in the academy had been at their institution for 10 years or more.

This is an interesting, and I think a troubling, demographic skew. Well, of course I'm troubled by it: I'm on the adjunct track when I had hoped to be on the tenure track. But I believe it is not a healthy sign for the "reproduction" and continuation of the profession (as a profession) overall. The problem, as I see it, is not that there are too many full-time historians over the age of 55, but rather that there are too few full-time historians under the age of 55. And frankly, I think there should be a better balance junior and senior faculty. The junior faculty bring energy, enthusiasm and new ideas, while the senior faculty provide experience, maturity and even, sometimes, real wisdom. But over half of full-time faculty over the age of 55 does not strike me as an example of this sort of balance.

In fact, I'm not sure how much difference it would make if more tenured faculty retired at age 65 instead of hanging in until the stock market recovers. It's not as though one can confidently expect that the retirement of a senior tenured faculty member opens up a new tenure line for a junior scholar. Over the past decade, we have seen an erosion of tenurable jobs as tenured faculty are not replaced (or rather, are replaced by contingent faculty) when they retire. Still, some tenured lines are continued, obviously, so that in some cases it probably would make a difference.

So I do have to wonder about the present situation. It's difficult to avoid the thought that the burden of weathering the current economic downturn falls disproportionately on the younger members (or would-be members, or marginal members) of the profession. Given the tenure system, and given the Supreme Court's ruling that mandatory retirement at 65 constitutes age discrimination, is there no other way to spread the wealth and poverty of the historical profession? How about a mandatory (but not age-related) cap on years of service to any given institution (say 25 years? or maybe 30?)?


In the comments section, Livia directs our attention to James Shapiro's "Death in a Tenured Position," which opens:

On April 1999, I attended a one-day conference at which a couple of distinguished scholars read papers before an audience consisting largely of graduate students, few of whom were likely ever to get on the tenure track that would lead to their appearance on the podium. A provost then made an appearance and singled out for praise a senior scholar in the audience. That scholar had been teaching at the college level since 1945 and had entered the tenure track in 1952.

The incongruity between his open-ended career and the dead-end careers of most of those in the audience proved too much for me...

While Shapiro is a strong proponent of the tenure system, he objects to the "abuse of tenure" and argues that when "tenure so nakedly serves the interests of established senior scholars, while it remains beyond the reach of most young scholars, any defense of the tenure system is badly weakened." Intellectual progress, he suggests, "depends on a complicated intergenerational exchange" and is "predicated on the assumption that those who control the mechanisms by which scholarship is made possible—tenure, endowed chairs, service on editorial boards, fellowship and tenure-review committees, directorships of patronage-dispensing institutes—will turn them over to the next generation after an appropriate time, even as their mentors did for them."

Posted by Invisible Adjunct at July 8, 2003 07:12 PM

There's an interesting article about the same problem in the Univ. of Chicago alumni magazine, August 2000 (I believe it's online). Title is "Death in a Tenured Position," and author is James Shapiro.

Posted by: Livia at July 8, 2003 07:55 PM

This phenomenon is nothing less than a metaphor for the transformation of academe, at least in the humanities. Not only is this generation of professors aging and dying, so is the profession they inhabit. In another twenty years they will all be gone, and what they represent will go with them. What will replace them? A cadre of well-educated, poorly-paid contingent workers, if current demographic trends hold true. Yes, there will be a few like them who follow, but they will not be representative.

This is the true scandal of the situation in academe. Five young, bright individuals are sold on the dream of the tenured life of the mind as embodied by these senior scholars, and at most one of them will achieve it. The rest will--what? Teach as adjuncts? Leave the profession? The latter will be the best choice for them.

But I wonder--what will become of the profession when those who "profess" it are no longer? What will happen to knowledge in the humanites if there are no young scholars left to energize the research paradigms? Already, in English, one sees a timid sifting of the methodology of the older generation by the young generation now coming into tenure, as a recent anthology by Peter Herman demonstrates. This timidity is driven largely by professional insecurity--a reluctance to offend the gatekeepers who still hold the keys to their professional future. And this is the full-time, tenure-stream cohort--what represents the best and the brightest of their generation!

I do not even want to speculate what will happen because of the loss of my generation, "Generation X," those of us in our thirties. Sheer stubborness allowed me to publish three books by the time I was 32, but it counted for nothing except my own satisfaction. What of those who are teaching six courses at three different campuses? What of those who simply drift away in frustration to earn a living elsewhere.

I was inspired by dynamic teachers and scholars as an undergraduate. They were largely what led me to graduate school--not just because the life of the mind and research seemed so exciting, but because I wanted to be able to inspire younger students as I had been inspired. Well, I never got the chance to do this. Teaching required writing courses to bored freshmen who didn't want to be there, and then juggling a teaching schedule with a retail job and final academic job search left me unable to do any more than punch the clock in the classroom.

Is this what my two sons will encounter in college? Will they have the opportunity at all to study with a bright, dedicated teacher who enlarges their mind? In the end that is what it is all about--not about recruiting more students for the professoriate, although I would have been happy to do so (in a better world). The loss of that opportunity--to be a teacher and to broaden a few students' worlds--is what I mourn the most about my own stillborn academic career.

What I fear is that my sons will be taught mostly by harried adjuncts and greenhorn teaching assistants. Certainly these individuals can be dedicated teachers, but the odds do not favor it. I am pessimistic that my sons will have a college experience anything near as rich as mine. That world is aging, day by day, with the senior faculty referred to above. By the time my sons go to college in fifteen years, it will probably be completely gone.

Posted by: Kevin Walzer at July 9, 2003 12:38 AM

Shapiro is turning a structural, political issue into one of personal ethics. Let us imagine that kindly older profs step aside from the goodness of their hearts and committment to the vitality of their fields. OK? Done that? Now, do you see that vast choice adjunct jobs opening up? Lovely, eh?

Posted by: che at July 9, 2003 08:10 AM

If these trends continue, is there not a danger that there will be an increase in the already large divide between the top colleges and universities and the more affordable ones? I just don't see high-ranking institutions following the trend of the overreliance on adjunct labor. Places like Northwestern, though they use adjuncts, still understand the necessity of supported, full time faculty. To go too much toward part time labor (and this is not to imply that part timers are less "scholarly"...they aren't...they are just more exhausted!) means a reflection on the quality of scholarship and teaching. If a school does not have enough full time faculty, tenured or not, it isn't equipped to cope with the challenges that today's students bring (remedial coursework, non-traditional needs, etc.). An excellent teacher is irreplaceable, especially if he or she can reach the more difficult students (the attrition rate for freshmen is pretty high!). But excellent teachers and researchers need support or they burn out fast.
The less expensive colleges are rushing to hire more adjuncts, not considering that doing so will create an even bigger gulf between the haves and the have-nots in terms of institutions. The top-ranking ones will not sacrifice their reputation, but the middle to low tier ones will keep thinking bottom line.

Posted by: Cat at July 9, 2003 09:36 AM

While I am reluctant to defend the senior generation's tenacious hold on their tenured positions and all of its benefits, the overall down-turn in the economy, instability in the stock market, and the woeful state of the medicare program all go a long way toward explaining their reluctance to retire. As a strictly economic issue, retirement on a pension and/or some sort of annuity has to be weighed against the income level one can maintain by remaining in a tenured position. I may be incorrect, but on the face of things the latter seems the better option. And when the comprehensive medical coverage that typically comes with a senior tenured position is factored into the equation, I can well understand why retirement is a less appealing alternative.

All things being equal, I suspect that the demands of teaching a 3/2 or 3/3, or even 4/4 load, after having done it for 30 years or so, are not that difficult. At the very least, one would have to concede that it is a less taxing job than working for a corporation 9 to whenever, 5 days a week, with a two-week paid vacation. Coupled to the issues raised above, the rhetorical question 'why retire' makes sense to me.

These remarks speak to the issues faced by the senior generation. With respect to the issues faced by the middle generation of academics in their early to mid-50's, the following anecdote may suffice. When I first moved here I was an adjunct at a large private university, and when I inquired about the availability of Summer teaching I was told that all of those classes were already staffed. 'Who did you get for those classes' I asked. The answer was the existing tenured faculty. The Chair went on to say that for the most part the junior faculty take the Summer off to work on their writing, but that the tenured faculty, especially those whose kids were grown, always took the available sections of Summer courses because it was quick, fairly easy money.

Posted by: Chris at July 9, 2003 11:13 AM

Huh. I remember reading the Shapiro article several years ago, but it must've been in the original magazine, because his report on the sorts of comments he received is new to me. Voluntary retirement won't cure all academia's ills, of course, but I don't think it's unreasonable to see both disciplinary and institutional benefits coming from his suggestion. On the one hand, I've certainly witnessed job searches which were quite seriously endangered or compromised by faculty too out of touch with current trends or even language in their supposed discipline. On the other, it might just help the profession if tenured faculty follow Shapiro's plan and retire from tenure and other limited-consumption positions (preferably with a spot of mild extortion to ensure that they will be replaced in kind) somewhere in their 60s; if I am still in a tenured position at that point, I plan to be retired by 70 at the latest.

Anecdotal evidence: in my decidedly privileged graduate department, a whole generation of research stars (including most of my mentors) has just or is currently retiring, precisely in order to finish writing the books on their antemortem to-do lists. They're being replaced with tenured faculty or tenure lines, but it's taking the department an average of two years per position to find Just The Right Person, so they may not be caught up till 2010 or so. Still, it seems to be a step in the right direction for all concerned.

Posted by: Naomi Chana at July 9, 2003 12:05 PM

This high-minded ethico-moral talk about the betterment of the profession etc. is laughable. Perhaps I am overly cynical for one so young, but do you all really care that much about the state of the "profession"? The fact that you are wiling to entreat the elder generation to pack it in -- all for the betterment of the profession -- is as much a sign of cynicism as my 'I don't give a shit about the profession, I just want a decent job'. Do you really want the elder generation to retire for the benefit of those of us shut out of the tenure track like Kafka's "man from the country," or is it so that you may have access to those senior positions vacated by the soon-to-be-retired elders?

Hmm ... who do I have more contempt for, self-serving tenure track junior faculty, i.e., the cloying pre-professional epigones I went to grad. school with who now refuse to take my calls, or the old codgers who know a good deal when they see one?

At least I can respect the latter.

Posted by: Chris at July 9, 2003 12:30 PM

I know of a case of a very eminent historian who was forced to retire at age 80. He was still in good health and doing good work. His motive was that he knew that he would not be replaced by someone in his own abstruse and difficult specialty, but either by a more generic historian or by and adjunct. Someone capable of replacing him spent 5-6 years trying to a get a job (there or anywhere else) and then left the field. So encouraging old guys to quit won't necessary help the profession from the research end, though it might ot might not help the next professional generation.

Posted by: zizka at July 9, 2003 06:53 PM

Abstaining from comments to comments, I agree with IA that it is only logical to find a balance between ages and experience among faculty. Both are needed.

Posted by: Michelle at July 10, 2003 12:30 AM

A naive thought.

Why not job share? Senior faculty go part time and the junior faculty go part time re the tenured track job.

It never worked in Australia---the universities never took it up seriously. A two tiered labour market was more to their liking. Hence we have deadwood senior faculty clogging the system up.

Of course all of the above comments presuppose that humanities disciplines are worth saving. Are they all? Should every university have an art history discipline?

I'd better interested to know what historians think of that kind of history; and whether the assumptions made that history is a good thing apply to art history.

Posted by: Gary Sauer-Thompson at July 10, 2003 02:48 AM

Regardless of the special situation in history probably enhanced by the demographic, I would guess that this sort of thing happens or is happening in many fields from time to time. Ziska's story of the 80 yr old professor, and thinking of the tendency toward hyper-specialization, and logic would suggest that more often than not you have 1000s of positions, but it isn't a job market, it's 1000s of tiny markets for several specialists.

A colleague of mine suggested that we are headed toward a large general downturn driven by age demographics. Basically, we have this population bubble, the "baby-boomers" who are now all in their late 40s or 50s, and when they start to retire in large numbers, there won't be nearly enough people with experience ready to take their place. If he's right, this sort of thing would be going on across the economy, from the academy, to the working class, to the managerial class, everyone.

Few people realize how much or our economy is dependent on small to mid-sized companies (SMEnterprises), and no doubt the vast wealth of "human knowledge capital" of our dynamic economy is contained and generated in these enterprises. If a large percentage of SME's don't care to train their replacements by making enough good positions for junior entrepreneurs in each mini-market in the economy, then the collapse that my friend envisions doesn't seem as speculative as it did at first.

Seems to me that what you are talking about in the historian profession is the pre-cursor to a future collapse. Demographic wave ... glut of experienced workers in many categories ... no good jobs for next generation ... glut starts to retire ... ??? Seems to me that if we don't do something about this as a society, we will fall off the cliff in the next 20 to 30 years.

Personally, at 43, I'm at the tail end of the boom demographically, and really it ain't no picnic here either. In technology, particularly in the commercial world, there is also a dynamic to push older workers out the door quickly, so you have to have a long term personal strategy to survive. The kids learn the new tech very quickly, and they can write a lot of exellent code quickly on twinkies and cola. There are a lot of short sighted managers and companies that don't see the value of having a good mix of junior and senior members of all functional groups in their enterprises and think it is in their best interest to hire a much bigger percentage of younger quicker minds and push the geezers out the door.

My strategy has been to remain a generalist with a lot of hands on work in development and operations. We may never know if this worked since as my path unfolds, although I am at the brink of making the transition to "management", and I think I could make a nice profitable career of that, I am likely to take another path. That direction has a lot more uncertainty, but I try to have faith that the path of heart does not always have to be a financial struggle for security, that there is a light at the end of the tunnel.

Posted by: Gerry at July 10, 2003 10:32 AM

Cat wrote "is there not a danger that there will be an increase in the already large divide between the top colleges and universities and the more affordable ones?"

Contributing to the already existing divide: the practice of the top institutions (in name) never awarding tenure to people hired for supposedly tenure-track assistant professors. They don't get tenure; they are merely adjuncts with longer contracts.

Posted by: Spork at July 12, 2003 08:40 PM