Boomer academics plan to never, ever retire

Sep 26 2014 Published by under Academics, Anger

Somehow I missed this in the Inside Higher Ed a year ago.

Some 74 percent of professors aged 49-67 plan to delay retirement past age 65 or never retire at all, according to a new Fidelity Investments study of higher education faculty. While 69 percent of those surveyed cited financial concerns, an even higher percentage of professors said love of their careers factored into their decision.
For the faculty boomers who will delay retirement due to professional reasons, 89 percent want to stay busy and productive, 64 percent say they love their work too much to give it up, and 41 percent are unwilling to relinquish continued access to – and affiliation with – their institution.

USBirthsIn related news, this chart tells you about the size of the Boomer, X and Millennial generations in the US. Hint, look at the total-births trace. This has very real consequences. We see the effects of the Boomers in many job sectors, of course, but the academic science one is a job sector which encourages the hardening of generational privilege. People do not become too physically worn out to work. They clearly want nothing other than to die as an active member of the workforce. They simply persist.

At present, the oldsters/Boomers are a huge part of the distribution of the Professor class.

They have a disproportional and distorting effect on everything.

When they DO finally die off then the replacement will come from the Millennial generation. So big ups there, o complaining millennials! The future is bright.

Sourced from the CDC.

h/t: Neurorumblr

82 responses so far

  • Potnia Theron says:

    where to begin?

    For everyone:

    design workloads that represent equal work.
    set productivity goals.
    institute reviews with teeth, every 3-5 years.
    have a fair & robust appeals process in place.

    Rather than judging on age, judge on quality.

  • Joe says:

    I heard someone say this recently in regard to length of grad school. "I tell the students they are not going to make enough to retire until they are 80, anyway, so what's another year in school?"
    I've also heard it in regard to the pain of making tenure. "After the pain they put me through to get tenure, they're going to have to pay my salary until I drop dead at the keyboard."

  • zb says:

    I have been predicting this consequence of tenure + age discrimination rules for years. It's a great job to keep, and one you can keep without much stress, if you decide you don't have to do your best or be better than other people who might occupy your job, compared to most other jobs.

    PT's suggestion of "reviews with teeth" are incompatible with tenure as we know it, which requires dismissing people for cause, not just because someone else is more productive than you.

  • drugmonkey says:

    Would that be like the "reviews with teeth" that apply to NIH grants on a ~5yr cycle? Because it sure sounds like it. And, what do you know, this is the self-same system that has permitted the Boomers to get all the grant money in their youth and keep it into their dotage.

    The graphs are quite clear.

  • drugmonkey says:

    Also, it was around 2008 or so that there was a massive freakout about "all those Assistant Professors on study section" who were allegedly ruining review. Followed by an explicit campaign, including soliciting the brass at various academic societies, to increase the age of study section.

    Recall that the total number of Assistant Profs on study sections at that time (Gen Xers mostly) never got more than about 10%. OF REVIEWERS. And given that they were more likely to be ad hoc and get lighter loads they were clearly far less than 10% of the reviews. So the actual impact couldn't have been so large, even if you credit that they were inferior reviewers which is complete nonsense.

    Could there have been a more naked ploy to continue the GoodShipBoomer at NIH?

  • Potnia Theron says:

    Reviews with teeth does not mean that the criterion needs to be "someone is more productive than you". It doesn't have to be "bringing in great gobs of money" either.

    DM - please remind me where the stats on the scores for those 5 year renewals are? (serious, non-snarky question).

  • drugmonkey says:

    which stats? the advantage for experienced applicants? the advantage for renewals over new proposals? those can be easily found. even on this blog.

    as far as disentangling what is a "deserved" score and what is a "biased" score, well, that is unanswerable because the experiment has no random assignment. Me, I suggest the demographics are the convincing place to look for this particular discussion. It captures all the variables at once- generation size and the grasping of jobs, and grant funds, to the Boomer chest.

    It is fascinating that you are all "don't judge on age" when that is PRECISELY what the Boomers (and some pre-Boomers, admittedly) did to Gen X scientists at the front end of their careers. You grasp this, right?

  • toto says:


  • rs says:

    why are you spoiling weekend for so many hopefuls, DM? Enjoy your weekend!!!

  • Busy says:

    Let me FTFY

    Some 74 percent of professors aged 49-67 say they plan to delay retirement past age 65 or never retire at all,

    If you look at actual data about half the professors who have a choice retire at 65 and another quarter retires by the time they are 69.

    This is before we consider new retirement incentives which many institutions are putting into place. They range from straight payouts if you leave at 65 to phased-in retirement where you commit to working one day less a week for each of the next five years until you reach 70.

  • Philapodia says:

    I have two Ro1's going into SS in a few weeks. Total number of Asst. Profs. (Ad hoc or otherwise) on the panels = 1 . Seems a tad unbalanced to moi...

  • qaz says:

    I'd say that maybe it is time to "do it to Julia" because BoomerJulia ate our lunch years ago. But I don't think it would help, because even if we ate the Boomers (as @Toto so eloquently suggests), their Millennial children would simply replace them. It's probably too late to do much more for GenX other than to drink to our fallen comrades. (Something my friends and I traditionally do every SFN.)

    PS. For all those arguing for reviews with teeth - what part of "working until you die" don't you understand? Most of these Boomers aren't dead wood. Most of them are running active, very powerful labs, with lots of momentum, energy, and armies of postdocs. The reviews with teeth are what ate my fallen GenX comrades because their level 5 skills couldn't compete on a level playing field with level 20 master mages who had twenty years of preliminary data and twenty years of grantsmanship skills on them.

  • Philapodia says:

    In what other field would this even be considered sane: "This is before we consider new retirement incentives which many institutions are putting into place. They range from straight payouts if you leave at 65 to phased-in retirement where you commit to working one day less a week for each of the next five years until you reach 70"? Why do we need to be bribed to retire? My non-academic friends/family eagerly look forward to when they can retire and enjoy life (and play with grandkids!), whereas we want to work until we die. A wise elder I know recently submitted a renewal for his R01 renewal. He's 74 and apparently not planning to retire before he hits 80. Perhaps once you reach retirement age the elder statesmen/women of Science should consider focusing more on using their vast years of experience and deep understanding of their field(s) to write definitive books/tomes on their subjects and mentor young scientists, letting the young guns do the dirty-work of running a lab, writing grants, and submitting to glamor mags. That actually sounds rather nice...

  • In Europe, don't they force academics to retire at 65 (or even earlier)? I seem to remember elderly Europeans getting faculty positions in the US for that reason.

  • babyattachmode says:

    As a complaining millenial (born in the early 80s) I do wonder when exactly this future will happen. Not soon probably.
    @Jonathan Badger, yes this is true, at least for my homecountry. Although at the same time the age for retirement is raised (from 65 to 67) to be able to pay for all the baby boomers that are retiring soon.

  • Comradde PhysioProffe says:

    What's GenX again? I'm trying to keep straight whom I'm supposed to hate.

  • bob says:

    Demographically the mid 70s was a pretty sweet time to be born. Small cohort means less competition, and all the people born in the hump that starts coming up in the early 80s can be students and postdocs forever and pay for social security.

    Of course, this economic crisis complicates things a bit...

  • Eli Rabett says:

    As one of the just after the depressions and war let's have a kid generation, Eli decided that a) the Bunny wanted to go places and do thing b) the early out deal the uni was offering was too sweet to pass up and c) the clown ratio in the department was approaching unity.

    So yeah, we don't live forever, but the way non R1 places pay you have to stay to be able to retire (often not taken into account in these blog neighborhoods), the teaching load is high (often not taken into account in these blog neighborhoods), and there is a big difference between 65 and 70 (dittos).

  • Eli Rabett says:

    toto: EAT THE BOOMERS!

    We are old, tough and taste like shit. Swift had it right.

  • drugmonkey says:

    If you have to ask it is overwhelmingly probable that you are a Boomer, CPP.....

  • Philapodia says:

    "We are old, tough and taste like shit."

    With the right marinade and enough time even an old prof can be tender and delicious.

  • kevin. says:

    And that fatty, old, wrinkly skin becomes glorious after roasting or grilling.

  • anonymous postdoc (shrewshrew) says:

    BRAISE THE BOOMERS! Take that tough old CPP and make him fall-off-the-bone tender! (Use a light hand when adding the postdoc tears; while they do add a delicious briney component, they can be quite bitter.)

  • Philapodia says:

    An variation on CPP's latest creation:

    Hatch Chile Prof Tacos
    Hatch Chiles are grown in the Hatch Valley in New Mexico and are cultivars developed in the area over more than a century. The are only grown seasonally, and the season is NOW!
    15 dried hatch chiles
    9 dried arbol chiles
    3-4 well aged Profs (aged 75+ years are best)
    two heads of garlic, peeled
    four teaspoons cumin
    six teaspoons coriander
    one tablespoon oregano
    juice of two limes
    juice of one grapefruit
    two bay leaves
    one cup beef stock
    half cup oude genever

    Remove the stems and seeds from the chiles, and rehydrate by immersing them in boiling water and then turning the heat off to let them steep for about 20-30 minutes. Put them in the blender with the steeping water.

    Put in all the other chile sauce ingredients and some salt.

    Blend the everloving fucke out of itte to make the fucken chile sauce.

    Put the chile sauce, genever, and beef stock in a dutch over and bring to a boil.

    You want to trim most of the cap fat off the outside, leaving plenty of fat in the meat. If you were going to roast, smoke, or BBQ an your aged Prof, you would want to leave the cap fat on, cooking it with the cap on top, so that it melts and drips through, moistening the meat, but then dripping through and out of the meat. When braising, all of the fat is staying in the final product, so you want to tune the amount properly.

    Put the Prof in the pot with the bay leaves, cover and simmer on low, turning the Prof over every half hour. When it is pliable enough to break it into a few pieces, you can do that to speed the cooking a bit and also make him/her cook through more evenly. It takes about one hour per pound.

    Instead of queso fresco for garnish, we asked our cheese monger what he thought might pair nicely with red chile pork butt, and he recommended this beauty: Montealva, an aged goat cheese from Andalucia. As you’ll see later, the drier center crumbles up nicely like queso fresco, while the more decomposed outer layer just under the rind provides little chunks of gooey goodness. Needless to say, this has a much stronger flavour than queso fresco, and it worked out really well on the tacos. Although the first few I made, I put on more than was necessary (going on my experience with queso fresco).

    Shred the prof.

    Put the shredded prof back into the sauce and mix well to incorporate. If you have the patience, it is great to let the prof/sauce mixture “meld” overnight in the fridge, as it is even better reheated the next day. This is what I always do when making tamales.

    Ready to eat!!!

  • leroy says:

    hahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahhahhahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahha.... That was the funniest recipe ever. I would swear that Philapodia is CPP's monozygotic twin.

  • leroy says:

    so you have two for the price of one..hahahahahahahahahahahahaha

  • linda says:

    what is sad is seeing some of these older professors, slowly declining yet still at work. Instead of going down in their glory, they are fading away. It also hurts when they do not use any technology such as email, or are keep up on what is going on in their own research. I say there needs to be a time to let it go...

  • Eli Rabett says:

    As Swift said, all you have to do with the babies is pop them into grad school.

  • pinus says:

    old asshole profs are the fuckign bane of my existence. they take up loads of space, filled with old crappy equipment. they are on academic welfare from training grants, large non R01 grants that are impossible to lose. spend 30% of the year on vacation. damn people need to move on. stop pretending they want to run a lab.

  • rxnm says:

    It's just demographics that makes them, as a population, a horrible plague of locusts who will leave nothing but dust in their wake.

    Most of the old profs I know are pretty cool individually.

  • TeaHag says:

    Yes, it is indeed enforced retirement at 65 for europeans. My PhD mentor is a sprightly 63-65. I graduated from his lab about 22 years ago, so don't want to look to closely at that number. Nevertheless he has been on notice for years that he needs to have ceded his position. He has had to include his retirement age into Wellcome Trust applications, so that no matter how much they like his proposals.... they can't go beyond his anticipated retirement. I've hosted undergraduates from his institution who would like to be graduate students in his program who have been denied because he won't be 'officially' able to mentor them to graduation. This is garbage. He's a productive man who has made a career out of his research without abusing his students and has always been respected his role of mentor. I know that he will be forced to continue in an emeritus role teaching undergraduates because the bottom has dropped out of the economy in the country where he works and so he will, out of a deep sense of loyalty to both institution and students, go on working at a place that has deemed him too old to continue.

    At the same time, I hear often from more senior researchers in my small niche field that they are essentially leaving it up to study section to retire them. All tenured, they're hanging on until there's no more funding for them. They submit their grants and fight to the very last minute. The new policy regarding resubmissions just leaves them hanging on when perhaps they might have jumped.

  • drugmonkey says:

    Why is that "garbage", TeaHag, when the tragedy of the bright young trainee who cannot get a chance to launch a career is not similarly concerning?

  • rxnm says:

    That sounds like a totally great, human, humble, and appropriate way for scientists to wind down their careers, TeaHag.

    I don't know if it's a failure of the imagination or hero worship or the kinds of weirdos who believe "great man" theories of progress or what, DM. But yes, there seem to be plenty of people who don't bat an eye over the difficulties of people starting out but rend their hair and gnash their teeth at someone in their 60s closing their lab.

    And let's not that plenty of these people are welcomed to hang around for as long as they want with a well-paid, tenured position where all they have to do is teach a class or two and show up for a meeting now and then.

    Truly tragic.

  • Philapodia says:

    I think part of the problem is that the idea of "retirement age" was largely developed with manual laborers in mind. For example, my father has been in construction for 40 years and is close to retirement age. He physically can't do a lot of his job anymore due to previous injuries and heavy physical demands of construction, so taking retirement and drawing social security for him will be a blessing. This goes for a large percentage of the population. Before social security people worked until they died, but since life expectancy was quite a bit lower there wasn't as big of an issue with older workers clogging up the employment pipeline.

    One of the benefits of our line of work is that you can do most of our job (ie thinking and writing) long past when our bodies have started to physically deteriorate. Therefore we can keep going long past "retirement age" as long as we don't become senile. In addition, in our field experience matters and it's the people who have been doing research for 40+ years that either defined the field or know it so well that they have a better understanding of it than anyone else. IMO profs past 65+ shouldn't be focused on directly mentoring grad students and post-docs anymore on research projects (who weren't even born when they began running their own labs, and things have changed drastically since they themselves were grad students or post-docs). They should focus on mentoring assistant and associate professors and writing definitive works on their subject areas. This doesn't require grants and by this time TIAA-Cref or other retirement should kick in, so the profs don't have a real financial reason to keep drawing a salary. They are not going to starve like they would have before retirement programs were developed, and if you set your retirement up right then you can live quite comfortably for a long time. If they "retire" (but keep mentoring and writing on the side in a nice little office on campus), the financial stress on the university should be relieved and give younger profs some more salary support in lean funding times. Some of our senior faculty are pulling close to $200K before retirement, enough to fund the salaries of two full new assistant professors plus change, so the cost savings are significant.

    No one says that you have to quit working once you retire, but maybe senior profs should seriously think about evolving their roles to serve a higher purpose than pursuing their own narrow research program.

  • Potnia Theron says:

    If the goal of this post & comments is to bitch and moan and give vent to lots of hate, you are doing a fine job.

    Half of the boomers are 60 -70 and the other half are 50-60. When you were 30 did you really know what your life would be like when you turned 40? I'm not 60 yet, and I am still surprised at the difference between what what I wanted 10 years ago and what I want now. I would bet that lots of those 50-60s will change what they think and what they want in the way of retirement over the next 10 years.

    If the goal is to persuade people that a change is necessary, not a fine job at all. Nothing that has been said here has made me change my mind. I am totally amused by millennials telling me what I should be doing in and with my career. If I told you what to do with your career (along the lines of "be patient") you would be angry and tell me I don't understand you.

  • Joe says:

    Since the career path is set up such that one cannot get the "real job" until 10 yrs later than in other career paths, is it surprising that people want to stay in that job for 10 yrs longer than people in other career paths?

  • DJMH says:

    You know how I know how old Bertil Hille is? Because when he got his MERIT, he said, "The bastards will have to put up with me til I'm 80!!"

    But that's the problem, isn't it? No one wants to put an individual like Bertil out the door, but on the other hand as a group....

  • Philapodia says:

    @PT: A lot of what is written in this comment thread is tongue-in-cheek (although some is unfortunately not aimed at being constructive or at least humorous), but what it indicates is a very real frustration for those of us younger than 50 about our future career prospects in the career path that we are passionate about and a feeling that we don't have a real voice in the hierarchical organization of academia. We ARE told all of the time to be "patient" by senior professors, but IRL we can't express our concerns about these issues for fear of being blackballed and having to door on our careers closed. Therefore these pseudonymous forums are places where we can express those concerns in a warm and safe environment without fear (which is very real when talking about peoples lives and careers) and hopefully bleed off some of our frustration without shooting ourselves in the foot professionally. If we can also bring up a point of view that hasn't been discussed as much as it should have then we can have a good debate. Maybe things won't change, but then again maybe they will...

    @Joe: the problem with that argument is that it's been drastically exacerbated over the years. When the current senior profs started their labs they were likely in their late 20's when they started their labs. Several in my department have had their labs running since before I was born. However, now it's commonplace for new PIs to start in their late 30's or early 40's. The link DM posted earlier to PI age clearly shows the trend over time, and if things keep going the way they are then the average age to start a lab will be closer to 45 in another 10 years. Would I be justified working until I'm 85 or 90 if I can't start a lab until I'm 45? Personally I don't think so, but that's each PI's decision.

  • toto says:


    Gen X = born ~1965. Think Kurt Cobain.

    Gen Y = born ~1980. Think the kids who listened to Kurt Cobain while in the throes of puberty.

    Millenials = born after 1990. Think the kids who ask who Kurt Cobain is.

    You can also define generations by how they relate to the internet. Boomers invented it. Gen X and Gen Y saw it enter the mainstream (and fueled the dot-com boom). Millenials are the first generation that actually grew up with the internet.

    I suspect smartphones and portable screens will play an equivalent role for the next generation (i.e. the ones who are currently growing up with an iPad in their crib).

  • Philapodia says:

    I've thought of myself as Gen X, but based on these dates how would you classify those of us born in the early 70's (ie. Disco Days!)? Are we Generation XY? This makes me rethink my whole personal story and feeling of generational belonging.

  • Mobio says:

    I totally resonate with the frustrations of those 'less than 50' and the difficult times ahead.
    As one 'over 50' I might just add a bit of texture to the discussion.

    First, I didn't begin my lab until I was nearly 40 (not so different from many of the 'less than 50' group) and did not really begin to publish what appear to be genuinely interesting papers until more than a decade after that. My best papers are ahead of me I believe.

    So some of us 'boomers' are late-bloomers...

    I also attach the quote from Oliver Smithies (Nobel Prize 2007)--a fine gentleman in the true sense of the term:

    "During this period, I was invited to apply for various chairmanships in genetics, biochemistry and immunology. Somewhat selfishly, considering the great contributions that chairpersons can make to the scientific welfare of their faculty and students, I chose to continue my life as a bench scientist. But without this decision I might not have had the time to start the experiments, begun at age 57, which led to my best gene targeting paper, published after I was 60 (Smithies et al., 1985)."

  • drugmonkey says:

    Oh believe me, Potnia, nobody thinks Boomers will ever do a damn thing that isn't in their direct personal interest. That's kinda why we are here (as a country, not talking about academia specifically anymore, it is all inclusive) at this particular juncture.

  • drugmonkey says:

    Mobio- of course. The Boomer generation is a broad one and the later ones suffer a fate much like Gen X. I don't mean to suggest it just magically came on for those born after 1964. Everything is a distribution, folks.

  • potnia theron says:

    Then why use the term? Do you think 50 yrolds should be retiring?

  • potnia theron says:

    Your brush my friend, is a bit broad.

  • stonyni says:

    @philapodia you have it nailed. One aspect you left out is how do we factor slow cognitive decline into the equation? Once a senior Prof enters that phase (not all will, but statistically some will) can we expect a rational retirement decision to be made? I have watched my grandparents struggle with learning new things and wonder how different I'll be come that age, 70 or 80? What about my colleagues ....

  • bob says:

    Martin Raff is a model scientist retiree.
    Did lots of cool science:

    Also co-authored Molecular Biology of the Cell. Now serves on scientific advisory boards, Faculty of 1000, and writes the odd perspective:

    Here he talks about how American scientists don't retire:

  • Comradde PhysioProffe says:

    KILL THE OLDS!!!! 111!!11,

  • rs says:

    And some of these boomers see the heat come to their home. We have one senior professor who is 68 (who sometime says he will retire tomorrow and sometime says he will never retire, so who knows what he will actually do). His own daughter is adjuncting at 5 different colleges to make ends meet and now at least he understand the problem.

  • dsks says:


  • drugmonkey says:

    rs- 68 and he only now is seeing what his daughter is going through? Please. This is like some Repub politician "suddenly realizing" the pain their mid 30s + gay offspring have been suffering for 15-20 years.

    Not credible

  • DJMH says:

    rs--twenty bucks says he will understand his daughter's pain and come to the conclusion he should keep working, to be able to send her money; NOT to retire, which would help people other than his own daughter.

    scratch that, fifty bucks.

  • Dave says:

    This is stupid. Fuck retirement. It's an outdated thing, anyway, and most of us wont be able to afford it even if we wanted to.

    I don't blame the oldies for staying on. I would if I were them.

  • E-roock says:

    I can't wait to retire. Maybe I'll get to do something interesting in my retirement years.

  • rs says:

    DJMH- I am on your side (even for hundred bucks). You would do the same if you were in his position.

  • Dave says:

    I can't wait to retire. Maybe I'll get to do something interesting in my retirement years.

    Endless rounds of golf, gardening and looking after the grand kids? Sounds great. I'd rather work, thanks.

  • qaz says:

    We have one senior professor who is 68 (who sometime says he will retire tomorrow and sometime says he will never retire, so who knows what he will actually do). His own daughter is adjuncting at 5 different colleges to make ends meet and now at least he understand the problem.

    Aren't we in a dynastic society now? Shouldn't he be allowed to pass his tenured professorship down to his daughter?

  • Philapodia says:

    "Endless rounds of golf, gardening and looking after the grand kids? Sounds great. I'd rather work, thanks."

    No one says you "have" to become irrelevant when you reach retirement age. Write a fukken book that will shape the minds of the next 20 years of students, mentor younger faculty, move into the larger arena of biopolitics and influence public policy with your sage wisdon. If you simply can't give up lab work, then work as a post-doc for a newbie assistant prof (for NIH scale) and putter around the lab helping out if your ego can handle it. But refusal to ever retire will make it so that newbie assistant prof won't get to try their hand running their own lab and is a selfish way to approach science as a community endeavor.

  • Lady Scientist says:

    WHAT IS SO WRONG WITH EMERITUS??? Why can't people just accept it?? Retired profs can still give guidance as Emeriti.

  • Lady Scientist says:

    In fact, being Emeritus still allows for contribution to the scientific community and education.

  • Dave says:

    But refusal to ever retire will make it so that newbie assistant prof won't get to try their hand running their own lab and is a selfish way to approach science as a community endeavor.

    Yeh because all the olds are just throwing their labs at me right now!!! You can play nice all you want, but that's not for me.

    Write a fukken book that will shape the minds of the next 20 years of students, mentor younger faculty, move into the larger arena of biopolitics and influence public policy with your sage wisdon

    Sounds like a snooze fest.

  • GMP says:

    But refusal to ever retire will make it so that newbie assistant prof won't get to try their hand running their own lab and is a selfish way to approach science as a community endeavor.

    This is the argument least likely to persuade someone to retire. Nobody is going to retire just so someone younger would get a chance. You have a job you have been doing for many years, you still enjoy it, and you have been and continue to make important contributions to the field. Why exactly would you retire again? It's your job and unless you are unable to do it or required by law to leave, I say you leave when you damn well please. Just because someone else wants your job and thinks they deserve it, doesn't mean you actually owe it to anybody to step aside as long as you are able to do your work. And, yes, experience matters immensely in science, and I say that as someone who's pretty far from being an old fart.

    I am 41, btw, and I plan to work as long as I can, because I get bored easily and no other endeavor comes close to being as intellectually stimulating as doing science. I hate gardening as well as golfing. Also, I will never be able to retire anyway with all the kids I have to send through college.

  • @Lady Scientist
    At least in the US and in science, a professor emeritus doesn't really solve the problem of the old not retiring from the standpoint of the young(er). Typically emeritii still apply for grants and retain their lab space. The only bit they "give up" is teaching and committee work.

  • Hermitage says:

    I guess that's cool, just stop bullshitting your minions are 'trainees' then. We can vote on a more appropriate name, such as "kindling to the undying fire of my excellence."

  • qaz says:

    For the record, the not-retiring thing is not new to Boomers. I grew up in academia, and a lot of professors of the previous generation never retired either. I suspect that academics have always "died with their boots on", because we aren't really doing this as a job, we're doing science because it's our calling. The job's just a convenient perk.
    (Most other such professions don't retire either. Think artists, novelists, actors, etc.)

    As usual the problem with the Boomers is that they follow the usual human trajectory (go wild in college, grow up, get jobs, have kids, and then yell at kids to get off their lawn when they get old [see ASBMB article...]), but their demographics screws up everything.

  • K99er says:

    As a brand new PI, I can totally understand the aversion to retiring. I get to spend time teaching smart young people, discovering new things, and I'm the boss. In 40 years, I'm probably not going to want to give that up either. But on the other hand, my university has pretty awesome retirement benefits, so a lot of our retirement age professors in recent years have "officially" retired and collect their pension instead of a salary, thereby opening up those lines for new hires. They get to keep an office and some lab space while doing a good thing for the next generation. Given the current state of affairs, this seems like a good compromise.

  • Gareth says:

    I've been hearing that the current older generation are going to retire "soon" for about a decade now. They guy in the lab next door has a couple of R01s and a handful of postdocs, and I think turned 82 this year.
    In most other competitive professions the older generation retired years ago and is living off the pension funds that the younger folk are paying into. At least the old scientists who work till they drop won't be taking as much out of those pots.

  • Philapodia says:

    Qaz: Those creative types of careers that also don't retire are a bit different in that they don't generally require $250K (and a number of starry-eyed minions) or so a year to keep churning out product. A typewriter or piece of canvas isn't in the same ballpark and can be supported by a pension. It's also a function of available space, which is definitely finate in our field, but you can put a typewriter on any old desk.

    We're having a retirement party next week for a prof that just received a brand spanking new grant recently. Fortunately the prof is willing to release their salary to fund one of our new hires, which is great.

  • qaz says:

    Philapodia - Retirement was invented (fought for!) because people wanted to quit working at jobs they hated. So the amount that it costs us is irrelevant. (Remember, the problem is not people who are "done" with their science. The problem is the people who are not retiring because they are still producing important scientific work - the people who are still winning R01 grants, particularly from those they consider lesser "riff-raff".)

    More importantly, do not underestimate the amount of work that it takes to be an artist or a novelist or a professional actor. These are jobs that take tremendous amounts of time, effort, and mental/cognitive power. (And a lot of scut work and a lot of networking, much like a successful scientist.) Many people are still producing great and important art and science in their 60s, 70s, 80s, and even 90s, and see no reason to retire.

  • Philapodia says:

    I wasn't underestimating the amount of work it takes to produce art (my sister is an artist), but there is a difference in the infrastructure requirements necessary for each. Most artists could work out of their homes, writers can write their books in their den, and actors can work on a community stage. Scientists can't, however, set up a fully functional home laboratory anymore without Homeland Security not-so-politely asking what we're up to. With limited resources and space (the fights for space are vicious in my department) there are finite opportunities. An aged writer can't keep a youngun from writing, but an aged prof can definitely keep a youngun from doing their own science merely buy not scooting over a bit at the trough to give them room.

    In addition, with other creative careers (and I do consider science a creative career), your success directly feeds into your current salary and your long-term retirement strategy. If you write a best-seller, you get boat-loads of money and can invest it to save for retirement or keep working if you want. JK Rowling is a prime example. Same for art and acting. They are funded by the marketplace and are rewarded for the quality of their work. Salaries in academia, however, are generally constrained by institutional or governmental regulation and your success in winning the grant lottery doesn't translate directly to your salary or increase your retirement fund. In addition, with a very limited marketplace (ie NIH/DOD/etc) competition is so fierce that risky ideas (which tend to come from younguns) are passed on in favor of known quantities.

  • drugmonkey says:

    Remember, the problem is not people who are "done" with their science.

    Oh please. I know people who are mentally done with their science and still keep on with asking for grant funding. Because reasons. Like their place doesn't have Emeritus that lets them keep an office. Like they have people who aren't ready to retire yet. Like because they are the local rainmaker and collaborators need their bump to get funding. Like....they just don't know how to stop already.

  • TeaHag says:

    Agh Drugmonkey, when the fiscal bottom drops out of the academic world and all the bright things have left to attempt careers elsewhere - who will be left to train the grad students? My mentor has been trying to recruit individuals to take over his lab, but with no startup support for junior faculty and a massive undergraduate teaching burden..... nobody wants that job.

    The system became somewhat hollowed out about 15 years ago and without a significant national recovery, there's no money for frivolities like scientific research. Even private sources are drying up. The Wellcome Trust is going/has gone to a HHMI model and is only funding highly recognized/highly published researchers. Not much hope for a junior investigator there either.

    When I was but a haglet, newly minted PhDs would "see the world", collect their BTA (been to America) and then circle, waiting for a position to open up. Not so much anymore.

  • drugmonkey says:

    Why "take over his lab"? Why not just close it and wait for the next person to show up with whatever they want to do?

  • TeaHag says:

    I guess you're missing my point.... no one is coming. If they were there would be no issue.

    He had a functioning research program, productive in terms of students and papers...advancing the field. Now he will close up shop, but with no new faculty to replace him, what happens to the undergraduates interested in research as a career? No lab to rotate through, no potential mentors, no sponsor.

    Much as we moan and complain about the system here in the US, there remain opportunities to get in at the junior level. In a system that has essentially made it impossible for anyone other than the experienced and successful to become established and compete for funding, what happens when those researchers get too old? They've eaten their young.

    If US funding continues on a trajectory where first R01s are obtained by researchers in their 40s, then much the same will happen. There'll be nothing but the old folk at the top. We'll be relying on them to fill the gaps left by the disillusioned who gave up and walked away.

  • Philapodia says:

    Don't know your mentor or the details of the situation, but as presented it appears that there is an expectation that someone needs to replace your mentor as a clone of him? What about taking your unit in new directions with new hires rather than maintaining the same focus by only considering hires that would replace him? There are plenty of people out there trying to land TT faculty positions. On average there are 200+ people that apply for each faculty job, and while only about 20 of them are truly qualified for the position that's still a LOT of good candidates. However, if your mentor will only step aside for someone that directly replaces him then it's him that's the problem, not the lack of people to fill it. But oldster's unwillingness to step aside will result in these people walking away to find careers where they can afford to feed their families. That, along with the heavy bias towards experience in study section for funding, is why no one will be coming soon.

  • becca says:

    Lump of labor fallacy. They aren't replacing boomers with millennials, they will simply get rid of professorial jobs entirely.

    You know how there are so many oldsters willing to live on retirement incomes as long as they get an office and a bit of lab space? The universities aren't dumb. They realize they can get youngsters to live *permanently* on that kind of salary for a (shared) office and a bit of lab space. That is the reality for the future for the 99% of academic scientists. Unless there are better economic options for the hordes of brilliant immigrants that would be happy to live here, there will be no labor-supply shortage to justify what we think of as "grown up jobs" for academic scientists in the future. The boomers got their deal because of a particular moment in history which is not coming back. The American middle class is doomed, and no subset moreso than scientists. Well, maybe newspaper journalists and florists. I still don't know why the recession tanked the florists, but it's probably the fault of the internet somehow.

    But hey, as long as we're going to spout off random bits of self interested drivel unfounded in economic reality...obviously the quickest way to get people to retire? Is to get those Boomers some freakin grandkids. If Millennials had subsidized daycare... 😉

  • Grumble says:

    Re: "reviews with teeth":

    Saw a grant recently that scored above the 30th percentile in its second round of review. That was 5 years ago. Now it's up for renewal - which means that someone at NIH decided to fund it, even though the reviewers identified major problems. The grant has been funded for almost 30 years.

    Put all the teeth marks you want into it. NIH will still fund the aged. On one had, how nice for me when I get to be 87. On the other hand, it sucks to be anywhere between 27 and 67.

  • Noni Mausa says:

    Why on earth would a tenured prof in the USA want to retire? Oh, of course they would enjoy more free time and travel time, and would happy to evade the level of respect a professor gets from his peers - if these comments are any indication.

    But finding a safe place as a senior in the US, where there are health plans, some respect as an employed person and intellectual, probably home insurance and other group plans, and a low-impact workplace, is pretty dang rare. Plus, the elderly don't merely worry about themselves, but family and friends, who increasingly are depending on elderly family and friends for loans, gifts and a basement to live in.

    And finally, if the tenured staff actually DO leave, is there any reason to believe they would be replaced by younger peers and given the same benefits? No. When the hiring-python squeezes, he never loosens up. As his victims wiggle around to compensate for lost breathing room, he just tightens a little more.


  • drugmonkey says:

    Yep, absolutely enraging Grumble. (Unless it is my grant in which case Program is just making up for clear bias and errors of fact made by the reviewers.)

  • Philapodia says:

    A new Op-Ed in the NY Times today by CongressCritter Andy Harris (R) on the face seems to want to help younguns get funding that the greedy oldsters are hoarding, but is mandating the median age of the first R01 a wise idea? Keeping in mind that Rep Harris is up for re-election, do we really think this op-ed is really what he thinks or is it a bit of electioneering that will evaporate come November 6th? Seems a bit shady to me...

    This sentence struck me:
    "Today we see too many grants going to things like creating a video game for moms to teach them how to get their kids to eat more vegetables, or studying the creation of a social security system in southern Mexico. Such projects may have value to some, but is creating a video game really more important than researching a cure for Alzheimer’s"

    Is preventative medicine (ie making sure kids learn to eat well so they don't get diabetes later on) really any less important than treating people who get type 2 diabetes because they didn't think about what they were eating? I'm thinking this mindset is part of the problem with the public's view on what's important for research. If you don't get diabeties did you miss eating all of those Big Macs for nothing?

  • drugmonkey says:

    Republicans are against prevention. You know this.

  • becca says:

    As an important scientific side note, diabetes doubles or tripples your risk of Alzheimer's. There are enough hits on pubmed for "alzheimer's disease risk vegetable consumption" that this should be known as A Thing.

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