Matriculated in 1955, carried out in a box...

I started thinking about retirement after reading this piece by Tenured Radical: http://tenured-radical.blogspot.com/2010/06/gonna-walk-before-they-make-me-run-on.html
She talks about the resignation (“retirement”) of Helen Thomas at 89, after some tactless comments she made became public. I’m not defending Thomas’ views at all, for which I think firing would be appropriate, but I don’t want to engage with that particular issue here. The whole case is just sad. Being finally forced out of a career for a gaffe in one's late 80s: offers far less dignity than retiring by choice, perhaps a little earlier...

But TR’s comments about retiring, particularly in the academy, brought to mind this recent piece by Peter Conn http://chronicle.com/article/We-Need-to-Acknowledge-the/64885/

He talks of the growing number of over-70 scholars who - as he claims - are forcing tighter the bottleneck of academic hiring by holding onto jobs. I am not suggesting that all these senior professors are incompetent due to age - some indeed are the legends of their fields who are major drawcards for students to the department. But does Professor Conn have a point?

Academia in the US seems to have been particularly affected by the removal of a mandatory retirement age. Because the job is not (physically) strenuous (no heavy lifting, etc) there's no reason for people to not feel able to continue as long as they like (and the remuneration of the job makes it for some a financial necessity). I thought compulsory retirement ages were unfair – particularly in academia when more people might only land a tenure-track or permanent job in their mid-30s (or later?), the need to work at least 30 years to build up a decent pension makes forcing people out at 65 seem particularly harsh. The AHA have previously issued statements about age discrimination in hiring, and I feel the later-in-life-PhD job candidate of 55 has a better chance in the US than they do in the UK (where they will legally be forced to retire). I’m not saying the odds are good for older candidates, anywhere, but mandatory retirement ages make entering academia in middle-age almost impossible (if one hopes to get an academic job. Doing a PhD for its own sake is something else). Meanwhile, it’s not as though all over-70 professors are superannuated superstars: some have CVs and publication records that wouldn’t make them competitive for an entry level job now, but having been awarded tenure a generation ago, they linger on.

Is it good for our discipline for thousands of young scholars to be unable to find jobs while an increasingly elderly professoriat sits on all the jobs? Economic reality of course is that, should these older professors decide to retire, rare is the university that will take that salary and create two new assistant professorships. More likely, especially in this economy, that a department would lose the line altogether. So I’m not blaming these professors for hanging onto their jobs. Meanwhile, in the UK, where professors still face mandatory retirement, older academics polish up their CVs and “retire” to the US, where they can take up an endowed chair and work until they drop. And if the EU law is changed (as there are moves towards), allowing professors to stay on, yea until death, is that going to make things worse for new PhDs coming through the pipeline?