March 17, 2018

Hey Boomer Academic Librarians: Let’s Talk About Retirement | From the Bell Tower

steven-bell-newswireWhen 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 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.

Steven Bell About Steven Bell

Steven Bell, Associate University Librarian, Temple University, Philadelphia, PA, is the current vice president/president-elect of ACRL. For more from Steven visit his blogs, Kept-Up Academic Librarian, ACRLog and Designing Better Libraries or visit his website.

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  1. rosemary franklin says:

    Thanks for reminding me why I have stopped reading publications with “library” in the title. Let’s all retire and let new blood in, including these dry old bone such as Library Journal.

    • Jim Matarazzo says:


      Nice column. Somehow you jump from librarians to faculty as if the reasons for working
      after the traditional retirement age have elements in common. I wonder.

      In a study I am currently working on I can tell you, based on BLS data that more librarians are
      working after 65 than in the past. Perhaps, as many as 5 times as many than in the previous decade. They will however retire at some point due to many factors including health and the retirement of the significant other. Let’s hope it is gradual or LJ will have another column about how the LIS school didn’t see it coming.

  2. It seems to me that Mr. Schrodt is not talking of retirement, but of leaving his job to take a better one, more in accord with his current status and desire. In that sense he probably has the right idea. If your job no longer fits, don’t ignore opportunities to replace it with one that does, whether that be industry, consulting, or spoiling your grandchildren on a full-time basis.

    When our traditional notions of “retirement” were formed, a 70-year-old was a prodigy. Today a person retiring at 70 may be looking at 20-30 years of needing a reason to get out of bed in the morning. The thought of spending decades sitting on the porch playing checkers is repellent to me; I want to go on making things, extending my skills, shaking up others’ thoughts.

    I would balance a supposed duty to make room against a duty not to hoard or waste a lifetime of growing understanding. This is not a simple question. The best work of every generation is built on a foundation of the best work of previous generations. Where should we draw the line between competition and community?

    • Thanks for your comment Mark.

      You can look at it that way, but either way Schrodt has decided to leave the professoriate – and I thought he gave some sensible reasons. I think his story shows that you can retire and still find ways to be productive.

  3. Elsa Kramer says:

    Do you really think boomers will retire before they’re ready to, just to be kind to all the unhappy recent graduates who were promised jobs that don’t really exist? Many faculty are working past 65 because they are living and staying healthier longer. Do you really think altruism would prompt them to walk away from their enjoyable, possibly lucrative careers? Consider too that the much-analyzed graying of the workforce is not due solely to aging in place but also to the age of librarians when they enter the field. Some were encouraged to join the profession mid-career, especially after IMLS and the Bureau of Labor Statistics insisted there were more library jobs in the offing than qualified candidates. Some newly minted academic librarians are enthusiastic boomers with valuable new ideas, cutting-edge technology training, and substantial knowledge and experience in related fields. Age bias is unethical and illegal. Why are you promoting it?

    • Do I think they will for that reason? I’m sure some will. It will definitely influence my decision – and I don’t think any recent graduates were promised jobs. Where did you get that? I don’t think it should matter at what age someone enters the profession. According to your logic if someone decides to become a librarian at 55 they should work until they are 85 or 90.

      Nice job of trying to twist my ideas, suggestions and examples into the promotion of age bias.

    • Elsa Kramer says:

      No twisting was necessary, unfortunately. As someone who regularly assigns your excellent ethics essays to LIS students, I am astonished that you are taking this position, which encourages young librarians to think that the reason they can’t get jobs is because worn-out old people are in their way. Until 2008, LIS students most definitely were recruited with the promise of jobs, based on highly publicized BLS and IMLS predictions about retirements, even though other BLS and Census statistics showed then, as they do now, that librarians are not leaving the workforce as early as expected. Boomers make up the largest part of the workforce, and I’ll guess it’s because they need or want to work. I think a more useful way to frame your ideas might be to say that librarians who have been on the job a long time might want to change roles in order to refresh their own skills as well as give younger librarians more opportunities. That way, boomer librarians who are recently educated and hired get a fair opportunity to contribute to the profession before being led off to the glue factory.

    • Elsa, I’m glad to hear you expose your students to my essays – at least other ones. Maybe this one two. Let them decide what to think. You may be surprised they will see it differently than you are perceiving it. I think it you put it into the context of what is happening in higher education – which is what I primarily exposing here. I’m just speaking to those who may want to start thinking about their retirement plans – for many good reasons – not just to create openings for others. In other words – give thought to possibilities other than just hanging on as long as possible. To my way of thinking, encouraging boomer librarians to retire at an appropriate age is not the same as encouraging new to the profession librarians to conclude that the reason they can’t get a job is because an old person is in their way. I give them credit for not simplifying the situation in that way.

  4. This idea that Boomers have some kind of moral obligation to retire so younger people can have our jobs is ludicrous. I graduated from library school at a time when it was also difficult to find jobs. It would never have occurred to me to suggest, or even believe, that the older, more experienced librarians should get out of my way. Technology was just beginning to change the way we do business, and I knew a lot more about that than most of the older librarians, who were mostly timid about using computers. Still, I made the effort to learn all I could from them, which was considerable. I paid my dues in low-level jobs, and eventually found a job I love; one where I have made, and continue to make, a difference. I will leave it on my timetable, not because someone else wants my job!

    • I think the problem is new graduates can’t even find low-level jobs. I have an additional masters besides my MLIS and I was not able to find any work in academic libraries. Year long positions? Adjunct positions? Temporary positions? Nope. Even entry-level positions? Almost non-existent, and still nope.

      I finally got a job at a public library through connections and the fact I worked there during my college years. I don’t necessarily think that recent grads are trying to push people out, but when librarians stay in their jobs past typical retirement age it does put an additional strain on younger generations. We have more debt because of the cost of education. We want to start our own lives like generations before us did and we are forced to move back home because of the lack of jobs. We’re no different than the older generations, we need jobs to support ourselves!

      I was told when I graduated in 2012 that I was the prime candidate for an academic librarian job! I was immersed in academia, I had published articles, I had my additional masters…probably the biggest lie I was ever told in graduate school. Professors admit that the job field is not good right now, but they don’t make it seem nearly as bad as it actually is.

    • When I said I worked in low-level jobs, I wasn’t referring to library jobs. I started out working for a temp agency, being sent here and there, to companies that needed short term help in various areas. Eventually I landed in a company that hired me permanently as a secretary. Once they learned my background, they started thinking it would be a good idea to start a corporate library, and I was in the perfect position to do that for them. If you can’t find a job as a librarian, open your mind, and do something else. To quote Ashton Kutcher, “Opportunity looks a lot like work.”

    • Yes, I tried that. Unfortunately most places don’t want to hire someone with multiple graduate degrees because you’re overqualified and they don’t think you’ll stay with them. It’s a lot more complicated than looking elsewhere.

    • I don’t know that there is a moral obligation to retire, but the way I think of it is more like taking and giving. After a number of years of taking from the profession (through our employment in it) we should give more thought to what we can give back to it. For me, creating an opportunity, rather than hanging on as long as I want to “take”, is the best way I can “give” to someone else. I think Rebecca also puts it well.

    • I have “given” my life to this profession. In what way is that “taking?”

  5. For many of us the main concern is not librarians who stay on past normal retirement age, but it is the fact that when librarians do retire the positions are often eliminated in order to reduce budget gaps at the institutional level. Over the past decade many of us have experienced either outright budget reductions or “flat” budgets that still leave us in the situation of losing ground to inflation. One can hope that the nation’s slow economic recovery will last long enough to provide some relief from years of reductions and perhaps even give libraries an opportunity to fill a few of the positions that we have lost in recent years.