Hey, Kids! Leave Those (Older) Teachers Alone!

Today on Slate, I offer a rebuttal of sorts to the recent super-viral Chronicle op-ed by recently-retired professor Laurie Fendrich, which implores scholars of a certain age to “retire already!” so that there will be room for younger PhDs, and that students will get a more current perspective. I was once, in my (comparative) youth and considerable naïveté, of the Boomer-blamer school of thought — but then I thought about it harder for four seconds, and realized that pitting age against youth will do nothing to fix anything. Indeed, I realized, if anything, administrations are rubbing their hands together gleefully every time someone calls for their “most expensive” faculty to GTFO, so that they can be replaced by disposable adjuncts.

Actually, a lot about the “retire already!” mentality upsets me, and I think some of it has to do with the fact that both of my parents are Boomers, and although both are indeed “retired” from their primary occupations of sorts, they continue to be more productive than I am. My mother, 68, enters in, runs and then wins her age division in half-marathons without training. My father, 70, rides a “century” on his bike almost every week. My mother just published, at 67, her first academic book, and her scholarship — a very long time coming, but worth the wait — has been so well-received it’s brought her to conferences all the damn way across the ocean. My father’s retirement from the bench has meant that the University of Oregon Law School finally gets him back into the classroom, where he may be aghast at the amount of texting and off-task laptop use, but he will be as magisterial in his teachings about the Oregon constitution as he has ever been — more so, probably, since he now has twelve years on the bench to draw from. My parents are not doddering. My parents are not irrelevant. My parents and their colleagues do not deserve to be bullied.

Yes, granted, many in their generation have fucked things up royally. They grew up with every possible advantage of the New Deal and then, when they had reaped everything they needed to reap, voted to take it away from the rest of us. That shit was fucked up. (FWIW my parents did not do that!) Is it fair that they have pensions and we won’t? Is it fair that they could pay their own way through college on minimum-wage jobs and we [oh ha ha ha ha ha I can’t even finish that sentence because I’m sobbing so much]. Is it fair that many in their number are the self-same New-Deal-reaping a-holes who have decided to “run universities like businesses”? No — but of all the Boomers to get pissed off at, Boomer professors, often the Pinkest of the Pink, are not the problem.

Back during the three weeks I was an in-demand young academic (when I had been awarded the ACLS fellowship and was being courted by several institutions at once), I chose a particular R1 in the flyover (and dumped Columbia! Yes, I dumped Columbia) because they told me they were having “four retirements!” and that, nudge-nudge, winkety-wink, I of course knew what that meant. I very stupidly believed that these “retirements” would carve out another tenure line, and that that tenure line would be for me, since they seemed to like me so much already. So I packed my life up, and within two weeks of being there, as most of the faculty introduced me as “our ACLS fellow who will be here for a year” (the fellowship was for two, so they didn’t even want me for the whole duration they wanted me!), it was apparent that even if they got a new tenure line, it certainly wouldn’t be for me (“We need someone from Princeton!” insisted a senior faculty who shall remain nameless). I would, of course, I was told condescendingly, be welcome to apply. But I didn’t even have time to feel disappointed (in myself, for allowing myself to believe what was clearly a set of lies), because guess what? Those four retirements did not mean jack squat. As far as I know, all four retirees have retired, and to this day there has not been an open search for a junior faculty member.

Anyway, blah blah blah! Here’s a taste of the article; read more here.

The final arguments from Fendrich—and the boomer-blamers who agree with her—are that old professors cost universities too much money, with their pensions and benefits and whatnot, and that they are clinging to their jobs out of sheer self-interest, thus directly preventing recent Ph.D.s like me from entering the field in full-time jobs. Listen. Even if the alleged “wave” of boomer retirements—promised to every generation of Ph.D.s since Foreigner topped the charts—were to actually happen, guess what? It would do jack squat to fix the dire situation in which American higher education finds itself. It would probably even make things worse. So as a “young” person whose very academic career was allegedly thwarted by all these selfish coots, I implore you: Leave the coots alone.

16 thoughts on “Hey, Kids! Leave Those (Older) Teachers Alone!

  1. As a boomer with no dog in this particular fight (PhD dropout), I loved this article. I get so tired of boomers being blamed for everything and urged to get out of the way for the young people (so they can gripe about having to pay social security to support us when we aren’t working, I suppose). I would only add a few things to your excellent assessment. The first is that boomers get blamed a lot because we supposedly had great financial success that younger people will never have. As a 55-year-old who will be paying off student loans until I retire, I’ve got to say that’s painting with too broad a brush. Also, the social benefits boomers fought for that are enjoyed by generation Xers are real – the women’s movement, the sexual revolution, no draft, voting at 18, etc. In addition, I know academics who would never dream of generalizing based on sex, race, or sexual orientation, but feel free to engage in age discrimination. It’s tiresome. So thank you for saying something positive about your own parents, who sound awesome. I’m sure they’re proud of you too.


    • I am one Xer that can attest to the prevalence of age and gender discrimination everywhere. I think that the battle is in another field. Thanks for your rebuttal essay pan kisses kafka.


  2. 69% of those “delaying retirement past 65” (full retirement age is past that for most of the people in the group) say it’s because of economic reasons.


  3. Great article, and as always very funny. I was talking yesterday with a colleague in Economics — which at our university, at least, is overwhelmed by student demand. They won’t hire there either. She said econ majors often don’t see a professor (versus an adjunct / lecturer) until they are in their third or fourth year and are forbidden from taking more than the required number of econ classes for the major because the department just can’t staff them. So suppose you had a student who had a genuine intellectual interest in the discipline (versus the ones we might imagine, who just want a degree with which to earn cash): they’re out of luck!

    The logic and trend are relentless. Old faculty are too expensive! They gotta go! In the humanities and humanistic social sciences, we are told that ours are non-essential luxury subjects, so we can’t hire new faculty. But funnily enough, the exact same arguments (“we can’t afford it!”) are turned on our colleagues in disciplines we imagine would be rolling in it and meet every ideological fantasy of the corporatized uni. It’s *almost* as if it were not about anything other than hogging all of the available money and feeding it to the admin side of the uni. You don’t suppose…?


    • I think RS was saying the flyover school wanted someone from Princeton.

      I’ve never noticed any drop in quality once professors hit 65. The ones who are bad after 65 were probably bad before 65; all that’s changed is that now their age provides an excuse for people to say they aren’t so good.

      In the meantime, plenty of profs seem to really come into their own in their 60s, when all the nervous nellyism of academic ladder-climbing is finally past them — seems silly to force them out when they’re hitting their stride.


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