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Age Discrimination

March 21, 2010

In addition to the endless come-ons for more credit cards, my junk mail now includes lots of letters from insurance companies trying to sell me some kind of Medicare supplemental insurance.  I am not old enough to qualify for Medicare, or even to apply for it, but I will be in the near future.  I have yet to figure out what Medicare Part B and D are all about or what the point is of having Medigap or Medicare Advantage coverage.  I guess that I am still in denial about getting old.

In any case, it is not just the insurance companies that are constantly reminding me that I am, in fact, getting old.  I am reminded of it almost daily by the university.   These reminders come in a variety of forms, some subtle and some not at all subtle.  The more subtle reminders come in the form of emails and letters reminding faculty about retirement options such as our phased retirement and early retirement incentive plans.   (Early retirement is not an option for me.  It is too late.)  In reality, you are not entitled to any phased or early retirement plan.  As some faculty have found out the hard way, the university will only let you take one of them if it saves the university money.

The less subtle reminders come up in various discussion of how we can best solve our budget problems.  In these discussions, two topics are commonly brought up.  One, older faculty are less productive than younger faculty.  We all know this, a department chair recently told me.  Do we?  Evidently, this is not true of administrators.  I have never heard an administrator suggest that older administrators are less productive than younger ones.  Two, the simplest and best way to meet our budget reduction targets is through retirements.   This solution inevitably comes up during departmental discussions about how best to reduce the budget.  For example, statements at faculty meetings such as “Department x can easily solve its budget problems while we can’t because several of department x’s  senior faculty are retiring”  imply, and not only to older faculty, that  the senior faculty should think about retiring for the good of the department.   Otherwise, the department would have to do something more drastic like terminate the appointments of younger faculty or professional staff.  Older faculty increasingly feel harassed by such remarks.

I personally view remarks about the decreased productivity of older faculty and the suggestion that older faculty retire for the good of the  department as a form of harassment.  It is age discrimination in action.  My test for identifying discriminatory remarks is very simple.  Substitute some other class of individuals in the remark and then decide whether it would be insulting or demeaning to this class.  For example, if a department chair said in a department meeting that “it is well known that women are less productive than men”, all hell would break loose.  If a department chair suggested that we could solve our budget problems by terminating the appointments of all the female faculty, the department would soon have a new chair.  I have yet to hear any objection to similar statements made about older faculty, except privately by older faculty.  While faculty and administrators are very careful to avoid any remark that smacks of sexism or racism, many seem completely oblivious to ageist remarks.  Ageist remarks are hardly a new phenomenon.  As I learned in a NY Times article on the history of retirement,  Cotton Mather, who is best known for helping to instigate the Salem witch trials, advised the old to “Be so wise as to disappear of your own accord.”  Many of our administrators are hoping that lots of our senior faculty will take Mather’s advice.

At the same time that the university is trying to rid itself of its older faculty, there is a growing movement to rethink retirement in light of longer life spans.  When the concept of retirement developed in the late nineteenth century, the Germans were the first to begin to pay a pension to anyone over the age of 65 in order to allow them to exit the work force.  Of course, at that time hardly anyone lived to be 65.  Today,  our expected longevity is about 30 years longer than in the 1880s.  Baby boomers like me will be the longest-living generation in human history.

As people age, their interests often do change.   I am certainly not interested and excited today by the same things, either professionally or personally, that I was 30 years ago.  Many older workers would much rather change jobs than retire.  They want to try something new.  Universities have been very slow to adapt to these new realities.  Instead of encouraging older faculty to re-invent themselves and to take on new duties and responsibilities,  they view older faculty as an impediment to change.   The rigid disciplinary-based structure of universities makes it nearly impossible for faculty in one discipline to migrate to another discipline in which they have developed an interest as they got older.  This suggests that the kinds of administrative units in which we house faculty need to be rethought.

Universities need innovative programs to retrain older faculty.  It is expensive to hire new faculty, and it takes years for them to become assimilated into the local culture.  Programs that provide older workers ways to start new careers are becoming more common outside universities, and even the Federal Government is getting into the act.  The latest National Service Act will expand the AmeriCorps program to include a senior corps for older Americans.  Private foundations have begun to provide funds in the form of fellowships that allow older workers an opportunity to enter new career paths.    In many cases, these second or encore careers take the form of part-time or limited-term jobs.  It is time for the university to begin to consider its older faculty as an asset rather than a liability.   Instead of trying to hustle them out the door with various incentives, they could be using the same funds to retrain them for new positions.  The university does everything in its power to accommodate the needs of its female faculty.  It is time for it to begin to consider the needs of its older faculty.

3 Comments leave one →
  1. progressivescholar permalink
    March 21, 2010 21:50

    Great post. As a young person in academia it is important for me to hear the perspectives of individuals such as yourself. I agree that ageism is rampant in higher education. You mentioned that blatant racism and sexism is no longer tolerated, which may be true, but I think it is a stretch to proclaim that “the university does everything in its power to accommodate the needs of its female faculty”. I encourage you to ask your female colleagues whether they feel the university is accommodating all of their needs. Also, how about the older female faculty? Is the university accommodating their needs? Or are all older faculty members that you are referring to male?

    Further, I can think of several other types of discriminations, in addition to ageism, that are still tolerated within the ivory tower. These include: discrimination against people with disabilities (mental and physical), people with varied gender expressions, and people whose religious beliefs are not Judeo-Christian. I would argue that universities also see these populations as liabilities rather than assets.

  2. Aortus permalink
    March 23, 2010 00:56

    Random props for a thought-provoking blog. I got piled high and deep two hours’ drive east of you on I-80.

    Our university president has hit upon the same panacea: he has promised retirement-eligible faculty a bonus of a whopping 25% of their annual salary to retire on June 30, 2010. Allegedly, 40-odd people have taken him up on this offer. Implied, if not stated, is the idea that the university will get a better bang for its buck with younger and less expensive faculty members who will work for food.

    God knows we had some brain dead old mouth-breathers in my department when I arrived 22 years ago. The nice ones didn’t bug me a bit. The ones who screwed with me, I screwed even worse. Now that I’m one of the curmudgeons myself, I suppose I’ve developed a little bit of empathy. It’s not easy to avoid the slippery slope. But overall, I’m as judgmental as I ever was, because I’ve taken the trouble to reinvent myself at least once. Maybe even twice. That’s not easy to do, but it’s a lot more fun than having my brain turn to mush.

    When I’m asked if I’ve decided to retire, I have to laugh. I certainly look like I’m old enough to retire. But I joined the faculty at age 26, so it’s not an option. It may be time to reinvent myself yet again.

  3. Aortus permalink
    March 31, 2010 03:12

    @progressivescholar: I enjoyed your post. As an aging academic it’s important to hear the perspectives of younger academics who dare to speak their minds.

    When I was hired in the late eighties, my institution was very much a white males’ club. Not that this white male felt particularly empowered, mind you: junior faculty were to be seen and not heard. But I was quite well aware that my female colleagues (like my first office-mate) had it even tougher.

    Now my first office-mate is in her ninth year as the department head. During that time, the institution has hired one (somewhat closeted) gay man and two (completely out) lesbians as deans. A few years back there was a spectacularly bad hire of an African-American woman as dean – but that is generally considered a drop in the bucket compared to the spectacularly bad performances of the white males’ club as they moved up in the administration.

    Still, I understand the importance of not saying everything is peachy keen for everyone. I don’t think that was our host’s intention either. Over the years I’ve seen just about every possible combination of gender, orientation, race, creed, political belief, size, ethnicity, and zodiac sign get hassled unfairly for something. Some of these combinations, obviously, catch grief more often than do others. But I see it as proof that discrimination is a problem that affects everybody in some way or another – and that we will have to keep fighting it for a long time.

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