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.