When to call it quits is a vexing matter for many library professionals. Recognizing we need to move along to create opportunities for new colleagues is just one consideration. Higher ed faculty are having a similar debate, but many are choosing to hang on as long as they can.
Though I’ve still got a few good years left in me, I’m at the age where I need to start giving serious thought to when I’d like to retire. Afterall, DeathClock is predicting that I’ll check out permanently in 2029, so I want to make sure I have a few years to enjoy post-work life. It’s a complicated decision. While those nearing retirement age in higher education understand the importance of moving aside for the next generation, acknowledging our skills may not be what they once were, and realizing we are ever more out of touch with the young people we serve, our decisions must be balanced with both financial realities and a belief that we still have much to contribute. But do we have a moral obligation to retire so that we create opportunities for the next generation, or should we be free to continue to work for as long as we like if we enjoy it and have the capacity to do so? That question confronts many boomer faculty and academic librarians.
Keep Working Forever
In the past, higher education was a unique environment when it came to retirement. Colleges and universities had an exemption from the 1986 Age Discrimination in Employment Act, which allowed them to enforce mandatory retirement for faculty at age 70. Despite this being a form of age discrimination, higher education defended the practice as necessary for creating opportunities for new faculty to enter and advance in the profession. Years later, Congress allowed this exemption to expire. Mandatory retirement for faculty ended at the start of 1994. In the U.S., mandatory retirement is rare. Since college teaching does not make many physical demands, as long as educators stay healthy and mentally sharp, they can continue working for years past 65—and many do. According to a study by Fidelity Investments, 74 percent of professors aged 49-67 plan to delay retirement past age 65, or never retire at all. While finances play into the decision, 69 percent said they just continue to enjoy what they do and see no reason to stop.
Quite the Debate
Like many hot-button issues in higher education, faculty retirement is one that can sharply divide us into two camps. One side believes that what ails higher education is curable by having faculty retire at 65, while the other shudders at the thought of putting still-productive educators and researchers out to pasture. Any realistic attempt at developing thoughtful policy solutions is quickly engulfed by claims that all faculty nearing or at retirement age are academic deadwood, that they stagnate academy by blocking the path for newcomers—or that the real problem isn’t old faculty but bloated administrations. All these arguments and more surfaced when the New York Times dedicated a “Room for Debate” column to the issue of faculty retirement. As anticipated, no solutions were agreed upon in that debate. What did emerge is that, in practice, this is decided only by individual faculty members.
Personal Choice to Go
While the data shows that faculty increasingly refuse to retire, there are still a few who plan to do so. One of them is Philip Schrodt. He’s been at Penn State University for 40 years. In a blog post, Schrodt said he knew it was time to quit, even though he says he could easily keep going by putting in minimal effort and take home four times what he’ll draw once retired. He provides a list of other reasons, a mix of things ranging from no longer needing his institution’s resources, having the energy for research projects but not always for classes and keeping up with students, and wanting to pursue other goals. One gets a sense that coming to terms with retirement is difficult, but that it can be the sensible choice.
Perhaps it all comes down to another motivation, to—as Schrodt puts it—“get my fat boomer butt out of the way.” He realizes his responsibility to make way for the next generation of faculty. In a subsequent interview with Inside Higher Ed, Schrodt added that “tenure needed to be changed to fit the evolving nature of higher education and discourage employment that’s no longer benefiting the institution.” As expected, Schrodt’s statement generated lots of comments about the pros and cons of tenure and its relationship to retirement decision-making.
Example Worth Following
What initially drew my attention to Schrodt’s story was his honest acknowledgement that he’d help to improve his institution by retiring. By bucking the trend of refusing to retire, I think Schrodt sets a good example for boomer academic librarians who are contemplating their retirement age. While colleagues with whom I have spoken indicate a desire to retire by or before age 70, many are either unsure of their financial ability to do so, or they enjoy their work so much that they refuse to part ways with it. Personally I am looking at 68-70 as the proper age bracket to call it quits. My financial and physical health status will factor in, to be sure, but, like Schrodt, I want to leave before I’m way past my prime. Whether it’s frontline reference or instruction, behind-the-scenes technology development or administrative work, this profession requires sharpness and the ability to stay ahead of the game. Just as with competitive sports, when the body—or in this case the mind—can no longer keep pace, you know it’s time to find other pursuits. Finally, if we care about the future of our profession, we do need to step aside and create opportunities for those in wait. To my boomer colleagues, are you paying attention to the job scene? If not, please go to INALJ.com and take it in. Academic librarianship is a profession with so many great people who want to make a difference in their communities. Let’s make sure they all get their chance to contribute.