No Life When Junior, No Retirement When Senior

So I talked to a colleague who’s more-or-less my contemporary, and he said he didn’t know what he would do when he retired. (I didn’t say anything, because I sure as hell know what I will do, and am looking forward to it.) Anyway, I feel that this inability to imagine life beyond the job is the reason why so many faculty take a very long time to retire — they feel there is little for them on the other side. My former advisor retired at 80; I know for a fact that he didn’t want to retire because he did not know he would do with himself if he didn’t work. Had he retired at, say, 70, given his huge salary, two junior people could’ve worked in his stead for a decade for the same money; they would’ve been able to shoot their shot at an academic career, get tenure, maybe even get promoted to full prof. My colleague’s former advisor is in his mid-seventies and not thinking about retiring yet. Both former advisors are people who have families, so there are presumably some loved ones to spend time with. But I have a colleague from another department who has completely sacrificed his personal life for the career; who will he spend the retirement with?

In my department, we’ve been fortunate to hire a number of junior faculty over the past several years. I am blown away by how much they all work and how good they all are. I do feel we make them waste too much time on activities that don’t directly help their careers but consume both time and energy. The current department leadership has their heart in the right place (centered on good climate, good student experience, etc.), but is a little too procedure-, paperwork-, and service-happy. There are way more committees (by a factor of two or three) than when I first started out, yet the department somehow functioned back then, too. Junior folks are being pushed to put their boundless energy into initiatives that I personally think are a waste of time for all faculty, largely because the college already has many staff who are paid to do those jobs, and, judging by the deluge of vacuous emails we get spammed with, said staff are in desperate need of some actual work.

We drain junior people of their time and energy, like institutional vampires, without thinking twice if what  we require them to do is actually necessary, and without asking what they give up in order to fulfill these expectations. By making them overwork under the duress of seeking tenure, we stand in the way of them finding respite and fulfillment outside of their jobs. For example, we have a decent number of female faculty. Yet, here has not been a single one either before me or after me who’s had a child on the tenure track. I am still the only one who’s ever done it, and I did it with some confidence because I’d already had a kid in graduate school and knew what to expect. Young men faculty do have kids with their “civilian” wives and enjoy the tenure-clock extensions, while young women faculty simply do not dare even go there. This infuriates me. The parental accommodations ended up being yet another boon for the demographic that already has everything working for them, but it didn’t do much for the demographic that actually needs it. Yes, there are tenure-clock extensions, but we still don’t have actual leave for women faculty who give birth (post-tenure women often use their sabbaticals), and we all pretend like childbirth and early motherhood aren’t ridiculously more physically, mentally, and emotionally taxing on the mother than the father. This blatant inequality forced through artificial equality makes me so angry.

But I digress.

I am on the faculty mentoring committee for some junior folks, and I consider it my role to have their back: I am there to advise them, but also to throw my weight around on their behalf when they need something they are either too uncomfortable to ask for or they’re getting pushback on from the leadership.

Our fucking jobs should not be all-encompassing. And the service roles should be few and far between.  We should shield each other from bullshit, not help propagate it. And we should not be sticking junior faculty on the most-time-consuming service roles. I am grateful to then-chair who prevented me from hopping on the most time-consuming committee when I was a newbie. We now seem to populate that committee with junior faculty, and it makes me sad and furious.

Maybe if junior people had a chance to work on other facets of their lives when they are young, if we didn’t burden them with stupid crap when just getting funding in this insane climate is a real challenge,  they wouldn’t avoid retirement for literal decades for fear of having nothing to do with themselves once they’re old.

Or maybe I’m just crochety. But I, too, was once, not that long ago, very single-minded in the pursuit of my career; I wanted to work all the time. But sooner or later, we all seem to wonder what else is out there. We ask if what we envision will suffice once the job is no more. I wish the answer were ‘yes’ for more people.

12 comments

  1. When I started reading your blog about 10 years ago, I was nearing the end of grad school and did not think work would ever be my whole life because I just didn’t feel I was good enough at it. I subsequently got a job I really like, and for a while work was the best part of my life emotionally, because it was the only place where I could be free from the unpredictable and often unreasonable demands of other adults in my family. Work was also the only place where I felt like I was treated with respect and valued for what I had to offer, rather than being criticized and insulted whenever someone feel they weren’t getting everything they wanted from me. So yeah, for a long time I felt that I would want to work for as long as I can, because the alternatives seemed much worse from an emotional standpoint.

    I’m now working on setting some boundaries with those family relationships, and that is changing my relationship with work in that it doesn’t feel quite as necessary to be occupied with work all the time. But it’s a difficult process. It does feel good to say no things that have made me feel bad for so long, but some of those bad things also came with good things (as happens in families) and building up something that works better is not going to be easy or guaranteed to succeed. And it would not surprise me if work turns out to be the one constant thing that is there for me through all of this.

    I am also not tenure track faculty, but my industry job at a big corporation had a similar dynamic of “oh if this old deadwood would retire we could hire someone younger”.

  2. I wonder if there’s a difference between the retirement age choices/goals of folks at R1s vs at regionals, SLACs, or community colleges? I and most of my colleagues see a world of possibility at retirement, and are utterly exhausted by the demands of work, especially in the covid world.

    But with our not great salaries, it’s hard to retire early unless you have a spouse who’s made considerably more.

  3. Bardiac, absolutely. I suspect the post sounds obnoxious to someone who would love to retire but cannot for financial reasons. That’s generally not the case at R1s, at least among the people I know. Senior faculty are fairly well-off. Maybe it’s also discipline-specific.

  4. Industry physicist, I hear ya. For a number of years, I wanted nothing more than to work non-stop. That was my place of competence, control, and reward, too. But, for most of us, priorities and outlook change over the course of the career.
    Re deadwoodification, on the one hand, I actually don’t think people should be forced to retire. On the other hand, young people should be able to get their chance in a chosen profession. Reasonable expectations around retirement should be be a good compromise.

  5. This is such an interesting post. I also had my first kid in grad school and I think that set my expectations for how much I _could_ work and also how much I _wanted_ to work before I ever even started my job. If I’d done the job for several years before I had kids and had experienced the ability to be really single-minded about it I might have felt really differently. But since my attention and interest has always been fragmented I think it always will be. For all the years I had one or more kids not in full-time public school I had no child care on Fridays, by choice. That was my day to hang out with the kid(s). I figured I would have years and years to work on Fridays and now I work on Fridays if I need to and not if I don’t. And I’m not exactly sure what I’ll do when I retire but I have no desire to hang on for a long time. I watched a colleague stay on long after she still enjoyed either teaching or research and that was bad for everyone. My dad planned to retire around age 70 and died of cancer just a few months after he stopped working. I’ll be in my early 50s when my last kid graduates from high school and that might be a logical time for a second act.

    Re: service. I’m grateful that my department was and is adamant that junior people don’t take on a big service load. That was good for me when I was an assistant prof and it’s good for our assistants now. However, I’m now on the other side of it and it’s a heavy lift. We have a tiny department but the bureaucratic burden doesn’t necessarily scale down. When you only have two senior faculty besides the chair and one of them refuses to do much…it’s a lot. The answer, clearly, is to try to walk back some of the busywork. But that’s pretty hard to push back on.

  6. I just had this conversation with my advisor who recently retired around age 70 and is enjoying continuing to publish without having to do teaching and service. When I mentioned the idea of retiring and building an elaborate garden, he responded that I wouldn’t find it fulfilling enough. Not so sure about that. That and a good library and I’m pretty content. (I assume I would have to find something else but I’m not sure continuing research would be it. I’m tired, and I’m not that old.)

  7. Astra, an old post popper up and this was your comment. https://xykademiqz.com/2021/08/18/white-papers-white-knuckles/#comment-19028
    I feel it nicely explains why you former advisor is still pumped about science while you’re exhausted. My 80+ yo advisor is still very much into science, too. He spent his whole career flush, until he wasn’t. His funding dried up at 70 or so when his long-term program managers retired. For younger folks like you and me, there has never been an abundance of funding. Decades of nail-biting and constant proposal writing, to the extent that we don’t have the time to actually do science amid teaching, service, and sales are sure to make us want to be so fucking done.

  8. I took a long sabbatical in 2011–12, during which I decided to switch my scholarship more to teaching and give up on grant writing. (I wrote a sabbatical-leave report port a bit late, and posted it in my blog: https://gasstationwithoutpumps.wordpress.com/2015/09/08/sabbatical-leave-report/). Since 2012, I’ve concentrated on teaching and service.

    I retired in June 2021, and my textbook will be published in June 2022. I’m currently on 10% recall from retirement (doing service work for the department), and I’ll be teaching a 2-unit course (that I created last year) in Spring quarter.

  9. When I started on the tenure-track, I was one of those people who wanted to work all the time and did (although I did have one child during tenure track and another one right after I went up for tenure). Over the years, my focus has shifted slowly but steadily from work to family and friends and a good life; while I still love doing my science, it’s not the be-all and end-all of my existence any more, and my loyalty to my department and profession has waned considerably.

    Whatever was left of my dedication to work died with the pandemic. I saw many of respected colleagues for what they were — how they swallowed all the “follow the science” media propaganda whole-heartedly without looking critically into any of it, and how they took on their positions on zoom-uni and restrictions on students. I had this moment when I realized how mediocre all of us in science really are — we are not those super-smart heroes we think we are, instead we really are paper and grant factories and pen-pushers. Yes, sometimes brilliant things come out of all this “science” — but most of it would also have come without any one of us individually.

    Anyways I am sorry if I offended you or any of your readers by this rant. I don’t mean to offend, but I also think we are all much more replaceable and disposable professionally than we think we are. The only people who won’t replace us are our families and friends, and perhaps we make the mistake of taking them less seriously than we should. I at least made that mistake in the past.

  10. Thanks. There is a lot here worth thinking deeply about. Academia demands a lot from people and demands it for years and years. There is much that I am grateful in my career, but I also can see the price it demanded (or, at least, I gave it). It was obvious before, but the covid-era sharpened the contrast between the costs and benefits.

    My university and, to some extent, department runs on the life energy of the young people. It works them too hard and on foolish things, and leaves them drained by mid-career. Which of course leads people to pull back once they feel they can, and the cycle repeats itself as the fresh blood is pressed into service to cover all questionable labor demanded of us.

  11. @xykademiqz: You are right and it is propagating to younger and younger cohorts. I just read that the oversubscription rate on the primary postdoc fellowship this year was 19:1 !! And the pressure to even get into grad school is ridiculously high. It’s just not sustainable.

  12. @gasstationwithoutpumps: My advisor is using his retirement to write a book on general relativity in astronomy. No wonder he thinks I wouldn’t find gardening stimulating enough!

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