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Nathan - I've unpublished your comment because I can't see how it's relevant to this particular blog post. If you have a concern with that, please send me an email - Frances

Removing mandatory retirement is one way of addressing concerns that the aging of the population will mean that an increased proportion of dependent oldies will have to be supported by a decreasing proportion of people in the prime working age.

Surely academe should have a more sophisticated way of managing performance than tolerating almost any performance up to an arbitrary age after which no performance is accepted.


You've got to the crux of the issue. But let me put it into perspective for you. Academics' job mostly consists of teaching and research.

Research output is relatively easy to measure, however the social value of that output is almost impossible to judge. Think, e.g., of psychologists who have built stellar careers on the basis of findings that have failed to replicate (e.g. here). So as long as you keep churning stuff out, you're safe, no matter what the value of it is. You can say "ah, but peer evaluation" - but peers can form little circles of like-minded scholars, form their own journals, and referee each other's work.

Teaching could, perhaps, be judged, I don't know. Right now my teaching is being evaluated on the basis of a short questionnaire that the vast majority of students don't fill in. There is little to no evaluation of the content of what I teach, or how much my students have learned.

Should we do something better than this? Perhaps. But it would be enormously costly - see, e.g., the UK's short-lived experiment with teaching assessment exercises. It could easily end up having perverse effects as academics neglect the intangible (and often socially productive) aspects of their jobs, e.g. meeting with students, in favour of stuff that is measured by the performance indicators. Or student satisfaction is boosted the cheap and easy way i.e. by offering entertaining and undemanding courses. (You think I exaggerate - look at the rapid spread of fall break weeks across Canadian universities - "it improves student satisfaction").

How about this as an alternative? Academics after 5 or 10 years into their job go up for tenure, at which point their contract is either extended or they are let go. We could have a second tenure exercise after people have been in their jobs for 30 years - kind of like the annual driving tests people have to take after they reach a certain age - and either they pass or they are let go.

And remember - it's not that "no performance is accepted." After profs retire they can continue to do research as emeritus professors, and teach courses on a contract basis. Basically after they retire they get paid the spot price for their labour - which hardly seems unfair, does it?

Since Frances is proving that she is a high productivity employee, the pen has moved on, but I still feel impelled to comment, at risk of being irrelevant.

The academy is the ultimate in credentialed employment. At least in theory, academics are the most skilled of all workers. My humble employment sector, on the other hand, resists the concept of skilled employment entirely. Senior employees are therefore "high cost," and not "highly skilled," and targeted for attrition by early retirement offers. (Which is strange; a senior academic might be deemed to be "high cost" as well and targeted for aggressive buyout as well.) For this reason the end of mandatory retirement might as well have happened on the Moon for all that it affects retail.

But a curious thing has happened. Managers in retail are becoming increasingly eager to attract "high cost" employees to their stores. This has reached the point where chain retail operations are closing profitable branches, if not deliberately, at least without putting up much of a fight against developers.

The demographic background and the nature of the conceptual error needn't detain us. What does occur to me is that this is precisely the problem --and sector-- where the end of mandatory retirement was supposed to be an answer to a real problem. Strangely, however, the superannuated employees only accumulate in the well-paid and less physically strenuous sectors of the economy.

It's almost as though the problem was never the retirement age at all. I would speculate on what it might be, but I would just be accused of being greedy.

Erik - not irrelevant at all.

You raise a crucial point: tenure-track academic positions are tightly rationed, and the demand for those positions (except in a small number of technical subjects) far outstrips the supply. That's why rotating people in and out of these positions is so important from an equity point of view, and there is no "we don't have enough working age people to fill jobs" problem.

I think you're in Vancouver, aren't you? The big issue there, as I see it, is that people who don't already have equity in the property market can't afford to live in Vancouver on the wages paid by retail employers. And those who do have equity in the property market would rather liquidate their real estate assets and move some place where house prices are lower than work retail!

The one thing I didn't emphasize enough in my original post, however, is that I'm not talking about forcing tenured professors not to work - I'm talking about ending an almost uniquely generous employment contract (judges are the closest parallel in terms of occupations, and you see where letting judges choose when they're going to retire can lead you!)

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