Having spent so much time thinking about young Ph.D.s developing postacademic lives, it never really occurred to me that there would be similar problems of professional marginality at the end of one’s career. But Siris makes an argument that the failure of philosophy– which, one imagines, would be second only to history as a scholarly activity in which age is a virtue rather than a disadvantage– to find a place for emeritus scholars in the profession represents “the second failure of academia:”
[E]veryone assumes that retirement is and must be the end of the road: that the only reason you’d retire is because you’ve become dead wood. And no one has recognized that this is a symptom of a profound failure on our part, one almost as profound as the failure to prevent ‘adjunctification’.
It is utterly absurd that we have no standard options after retirement for senior philosophers who still want to be actively involved in philosophy. If anything, retirement should standardly be the next stage after tenure, not an exit from the field but another kind of removal of constraints.
Perhaps we get something vaguely like this in how some departments treat emeritus professors; but only vaguely, and only like. We are failing people at the end as we are at the beginning.
But what gets me is that everyone takes it for granted: suggest retirement and it is assumed you are suggesting uselessness — and, given the way the system’s set up, that’s a not unreasonable assumption. But it needs to be brought to consciousness that this is a failure that needs to be overcome, not a reasonable feature of the landscape.
How many fields are like this? Most of them, I’ll bet. And it reflects our somewhat schizophrenic attitudes towards age, experience, and work: we alternately talk about experience and skill being the most valuable things an organization can have, but at the same time sometimes imagine real innovation only coming from twentysomethings who sleep under their desks. Even in academia, some fields– mathematics and theoretical physics, for example– assume that the really brilliant work is done by the young, and if you don’t have a major discovery by the time you’re 30, you never will.
This idea struck a chord for personal reasons. My father just retired from his professorship at the Colorado School of Mines, to take advantage of some new professional opportunities, and to give himself more time to work on writing projects. His impulse to see retirement not as a chance to kick back, but to do the work he really wants, is hardly unusual. And I expect if I ever get to that age, I’ll approach retirement the same way. Assuming retirement, or something like it, still exists.
Actually, Theodore Roszak makes a really good point in his book The Longevity Revolution (who I visited a few years ago, and whose work I talk about) that the concept of retirement as a period of time that you could do something with is a very modern invention. It used to be that you were likely to die within a few years of retirement (assuming you made it that far), and for part of that time were likely to be an invalid. In contrast, now people regularly face years or decades of life in retirement, and fewer and fewer of them are content with the idea of just running out the clock in Florida (and more and more can’t afford it anyway). So if academia is behind the curve in recognizing post-retirement as a productive time, that’s probably not a surprise– though anything that wastes talent is always a shame.
[Via Sympoze, which itself looks like an interesting data-point.]