Academic jobs were affected by the removal of mandatory retirement

Nov 02 2018 Published by under Careerism

I have occasionally noted that we have structural problems in academic science that are caused in large part by the behavior of one generation of scientists. This has created a suppression of the productivity and aspirations of GenX scientists whereby we will never live up to our scientific potential.

It is unclear whether these impacts will continue to trickle down on millennial scientists and beyond but a certain segment of the rapidly emeritizing population is trying to make up for what it has done to Gen X. And by "make up for" I mean they are skipping right over Gen X, the generation of scientists who they most affected, to cry crocodile tears and wring hands about the youngsters these days.

There's a new version of this posted by one Richard C. Larson in Science. It's interesting because it ties into an ongoing and very real phenomenon.

There have been numerous cases over the past ~8 years of a certain trend. It is the rumor or plain statement that Professor Smith is "planning to retire". Or perhaps merely thinking about retiring. Usually this is coupled to a low ebb of grant funding for Professor Smith compared to the salad days. Perhaps a long interval of failure to get grants funded is referenced or perhaps not but the overall picture is clear.
1) Professor Smith can retire. Whatever this person has going on in the personal life, retirement is financially possible as a choice.
2) Professor Smith is inevitably at or past traditional ages of retirement (i.e., mid 60s).
3) Professor Smith is very tired of the grant game and particularly the current necessity to submit many, many grants. (Whether or not he or she has been working as hard as the rest of us always have is immaterial, btw)

Then.....drum roll....

Anther grant hits. And Professor Smith takes it for another sweet 5 years of funding.

What is optional at this point in the distribution is whether said Professors Smith have any intention of really returning to full PI work. I imagine some do. Some, I assert, really just can't figure out how to retire. They like to be PI. They like to be employed and they LOOOOOVE to be able to still junket around the world to meetings. They expect to be living out their final days with some highly productive trainees pumping out papers with relatively little input from Professor Smith.

At this point, as always, someone is thinking I have a very specific Professor Smith in mind. I do not. That is how common this character has become. Every colleague I know, at far flung universities, seems to know this character.

Professor Larson asks "What are you waiting for?"

When I was hired as an assistant professor in 1969, mandatory retirement at age 65 was the law of the land for tenured faculty members. I was 26 years old at the the time I was 50...federal law had removed all age limits. I could stay in my tenured position forever! That's how, in 2011, I found myself still an active professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in Cambridge at age 68.

Typical set up.

how eliminating mandatory retirement had affected the availability of positions for new assistant professors. The question struck me as important but not personally relevant—until my colleagues and I got our results.

Our initial intuition was that there would be no substantial long-term effect. We expected to find that the number of open positions dipped just after the law's two changes. After all, the number of available tenure-track faculty slots is essentially fixed—at MIT, there are approximately 1000. To create room for a new faculty member, an existing one has to leave. But after a brief dip, we thought, retirements should return to normal, creating room for new recruits.

How convenient. Magical thinking to justify their selfish behavior. How can retirement return to "normal" if there is no more retirement and health care continues to extend life?

we discovered that eliminating the retirement age had reduced the number of new slots for MIT assistant professors by 19%, from 57 to 46 per year. Put simply, without a mandatory retirement age, senior faculty members are much slower to leave.

Who could have ever predicted that they would not leave at all, ever, until they literally died?

I had hired a postdoc ...he worried that, like many postdocs, he might not be able to get the tenure-track position he sought. There are simply too many applicants seeking too few positions. And I began to realize that I and other professors older than 65 were blocking the way of many young scholars who seek academic careers.

Really. You "began to realize" only because your dude was having trouble.

(In the meantime, [postdoc] secured that tenure-track position and is now an associate professor with tenure.)

Oh look. "no harm no foul" right? The really "superlative young scholar" postdocs were okay! ...this guy. smh.

Once “professor, post-tenure” was announced in 2016, I found it increasingly attractive. It wasn't the same as “emeritus”—not full retirement. I could retain my office, teach and supervise students, and be a principal investigator on research grants—all with great flexibility. I would get to choose which projects I wanted to do and be paid accordingly, up to 49% of my previous salary.

Need we mention that this half of previous salary is a whole assistant professor salary? Or perhaps a nice little chunk of bridge funding for the struggling associate professor? I mean...dude!

At 74, I in essence removed 9 years from someone else's career. I should have stepped aside sooner.

Holy crap. 74? and you are still on half time? which, btw, doesn't "remove 9 years". IT PREVENTS AN ENTIRE CAREER from ever happening.

What are you waiting for, Professor, Post-tenure Larson?

27 responses so far

  • Jonathan Badger says:

    I also think it is odd how not retiring and being a PI until death is often treated as an *admirable* thing -- many obituaries of scientists say things like "Professor Smith was so dedicated to science that he was working on a grant proposal at the time of his death at age 94."

  • dr_mho says:

    I’m only 42, why the fuck should I plan on stopping my career at some arbitrary age limit? Fuck you. Want to stay in science? Out-compete me for grants.

  • qaz says:

    You do realize that they are going to implement mandatory retirement just in time to screw GenX, right?

    I think this is a red herring. The problem isn't really that they removed mandatory retirement. The problem is that they never accounted for the demographics. We need a mix of faculty from risky developing faculty to stable grocers and peak-productivity empires to blue-chip old folks. The fact that there was a demographic bump moving through these needed to be accounted for and wasn't.

    And for the record, the statement "to hire someone, someone has to leave" is simply wrong. If that were true, the unemployment rate would be constantly increasing since the population is constantly increasing. As the population increases, more people go to college, and we need more professors. This is why economics is all about rates. Moreover, as we increase the efficiency of farms and other suppliers, we have more room for long-term-producers (i.e. scientists and other innovators).

    Some of the best science I've ever seen done is being done by a 75-year old professor who talks of retiring, for about 10 minutes, until he gets excited by the next discovery. I'm with dr mho.

    We need to support scientists who are contributing at all levels. Mandatory retirement is a terrible idea. The vast majority of 65 year old scientists *are* retiring. If there's a few grand-old-folks around, that's a good thing. You do know that mandatory retirement is an idea that they are going to push as the next stage of generational warfare, and the ones who are going to lose are going to be you and me, DM (as GenXers), right?

    Let's be clear, the country could have fixed the problem in the first place if they (1) hadn't stopped providing community support for colleges (which drove personal college tuition up, making college harder to go to, and reduced the number of professors needed), and (2) had continued to fund science at the rate they were funding them (which meant there'd be funding for more scientists). Moreover, (3) NIH could have solved the "find a kid a job" problem if they hadn't pulled the ladder up when GenX showed up (and put it back down when the Millenials showed up, q.v. R29 to "new investigator" disaster to ESI, K99, DP1, etc.). For a timeline, see

  • drugmonkey says:

    Fuck you.

    Yes, this is a great recipe for civil society.

  • Morgan Price says:

    I'm a bit confused -- don't long-term faculty at research universities have really nice pensions, so that they can retire without much loss of income? Are these jobs are so cushy that people do them for minimal pay? Apparently some people like writing grants, but still...

  • Ola says:

    Not factored into the narrative is the fact that a bunch of baby boomers did fuck all about retirement financial planning, then in the early 00s (war spending spurs talk of tight social security budgets) they panicked and invested in a pile of shitty stuff that went pop in 2008. A big chunk of the "I don't want to retire yet" crap from the last decade has been idiots whose 403bs got wiped out trying to recover some before pulling the plug.

    Of course, with the inevitable financial crisis that will come from the Trump era low taxes and high military spending (see 2008), the possibility exists that us Gen-Xers may be subject to the same problem all over again. We won't be able to afford to retire. Oh Joy!

  • Jonathan Badger says:

    qaz: "As the population increases, more people go to college, and we need more professors."

    Ha! That's why universities are into hiring non-tenure track lecturers and adjunct professors with real jobs in industry.

  • Neuro-conservative says:

    I know *multiple* examples that are far, far worse, DM. These Boomers have no life or identity outside the lab, even though the science has long since passed them by and they are surviving off the fumes of their reputation earned in the 1980's and the hard work of the junior folks under and around them who are constantly checking the actuarial tables.

  • qaz says:

    @JB - actually, it's the opposite. What actually happened is that they made it harder to go to college and the professorial market got limited and there were no jobs available when the GenXers arrived*, so the labor market got messed up and people who were desperate to stay in academia proved that they too would do it even if it didn't pay them enough to live on.** This is primarily because the baby boomers shifted the cost of college from the state to the individual.*** Of course, with the inevitable cycle, they are discovering that they can't pay for their kids'/grandkids college and the baby boomers are now talking about making college free again...****

    * Jobs are now available because the baby boomers are retiring.
    ** It will be interesting to see if the terrible crime that is the adjunct professorship disappears once the labor market renormalizes.
    *** This is why it was possible to work summers in the 1960s to pay for college, but one can't anymore.
    **** I think this is a good idea, or at least making it cheap again, but then I'm a GenXer who survived the famine.

  • Jonathan Badger says:

    You don't have to go back to the 1960s in regard to paying for college -- I was an undergrad in the late 1980s/early 1990s and I paid for my tuition myself by working 20-30 hours a week in the library during the school year and close to 40 in the summer. This was at the University of Wisconsin - Madison, and tuition was under two thousand dollars a semester in-state.  Now it is over ten thousand. I like to blame Boomers as much as any GenXer, but this increase happened well within adulthood of Xers as well as Boomers.

  • eeke says:

    Well you first, DM. You go right ahead, you first.

  • mpledger says:

    The Gen Xers may have existed as adults but the boomers held the reins of power by being in manegerial positions and by weight of numbers at the polling booths.

  • DJMH says:

    What's really warped is that when someone successful *does* decide to retire at 70 or whatever, everyone around them is all "Oh noes we will never weather the loss of Dr X!" rather than "Thanks for your science, enjoy the beach." I never understand that (except as a sign that we have grown so accustomed to these old guys that we can't envision life without them.)

  • qaz says:

    Well, DJMH, one issue is that the number of people able to take those administrative managerial positions is diminishing, which means a lot of extra work for us GenXers who are here. A lot of that Oh Noes is coming from missing the leadership and infrastructural knowledge and general scientific background as much as new scientific innovations. (You need oldies to remind you to go read that classic 1930s paper in a field you've never head of. While we often joke about that, it is sometimes the critical element you're actually missing.)

    Hmm. Never thought of this before, but I wonder if some of the reason for the administrative bloat that universities saw was due to demographic mismatches of too many senior people who needed administrative mollifying.

  • ginger says:

    I don’t think an age limit is fair, because women experience career delays. I think a certain number of years as full professor, or of tenure, is more reasonable.

  • Ola says:

    I'm with Ginger ^^^

    Consider someone retiring at 70 very likely got their PhD in their mid 20s and likely took a faculty position at age 30 after a quick post-doc. They've had a good run of at least 40 years, and get social security on top of whatever pension they've saved.

    Contrast to someone today who may get a 4 year degree at age 22, work as a lab-tech for a while so they can get into grad school, then 6 years doing a PhD emerging at 30, plus 6 years post-doc', 3 years as RAP or another interim position, maybe getting their first full position at 40. Mandatory retirement at 65 gives them only 25 years on the faculty to built a retirement portfolio. That's not even counting student debt to pay off somewhere along the line.

    How about we cap time in the tenure track at 30 years? That way if you're late to the game you still get a shot at being able to achieve the financial freedom to retire.

  • Qaz says:

    How about we actually make room for everybody? Given that the economy can easily handle it? Instead of giving tax cuts to billionaires, let's fund science and let everyone make their contribution.

  • AcademicLurker says:

    Ginger & Ola beat me to it. When the average age at which new investigators land their first R01 is (still) 42, mandatory retirement at 65 means something different than what it meant back when boomers were establishing independence in their 20s.

  • 2020 says:


    > don't long-term faculty at research universities have really nice pensions, so that they can retire without much loss of income?

    I know multiple cases of old guys retiring and taking their pension (which is about 80-90% of their salary) and then moving their lab to a new institution, which gives them a nice 20% raise over their old salary.

    Running a lab isn't like working in a factory. You want to play golf in the middle of the day, you just go play golf.

  • Zuska says:

    Whatever the woes of the academic job market are, I am certain that the solution to them is not ageism.

  • bacillus says:

    When I first arrived at my current govt job, there were several sicentists still working into their 80s including one Nobel. Money was easy, they had few to no administrative responsibilities, and they were enjoying themselves. However, pensions topped out at age 70 (but you no longer had to provide your 50% of it). Consequently, by working an additional 10+ years they took a bigger income hit at retirement, and this became their catch 22. Due to multiple structural changes and an ever growing bureacratic burden, most of the scientists are calling "f*$k this for a game of soldiers" and are retiring between 60-65. We even have a program whereby for your last two years, you can reduce your work week and salary by 40%, but continue paying your pension contribution as if you were still working full time. That's the path I'm taking which will lead to me retiring aged 61. It's true enough that many scientists make invaluable contributions beyond their normal retirement age. However, how many great ideas get lost because the latter won't move over for the next generation? I feel that I've had a good run, and it's time to get out of the way. I have between 25 minutes to 25 years left to live and cannot predict at which end of that spectrum my mortality lies. I have a lot else I'd like to achieve in life before this hits me.

  • girlparts says:

    There is really no guarantee that retirements will open up new slots. Public universities are plugging budget holes by encouraging retirements and shrinking the faculty. The two departments I'm associated with have shrunk about 25% in the last decade and simply demand more teaching from those that remain. Some of the retirees were "dead weight" but in addition to the research active, some were teaching a lot, mentoring and doing administration. I'm enjoying the new energy and openness, but it is also challenging.

  • SidVic says:

    I'm a gen X. I've been eagerly awaiting the retirement of baaby boomers for some time now! The fact of the matter is that I've lost a step from my 20s and 30s. I anticipate that by my 60s i will be more than ready to retire. But who knows? Consider ruth bader: hard to let it go if you have achieved the pinnacle. Even if hurts the team.

  • jmz4 says:

    "Contrast to someone today who may get a 4 year degree at age 22, work as a lab-tech for a while so they can get into grad school, then 6 years doing a PhD emerging at 30, plus 6 years post-doc', 3 years as RAP or another interim position, maybe getting their first full position at 40. Mandatory retirement at 65 gives them only 25 years on the faculty to built a retirement portfolio. That's not even counting student debt to pay off somewhere along the line."
    -Or, you know, make those jobs actual livable wages with normal benefits so people can save money and build retirement accounts. We've actually made some decent progress on that front, with the unionizations happening and the NIH mandated funding increases for postdocs (thanks Obama), so it'll be less of an issue, I think, then it has been.

    But yeah, as even as a millennial , I'd normally be all about sun-setting some of you old-timers. But with "real jobs" starting at 38 and older, no, it doesn't make sense to move the retirement age back to 65. Maybe restrict funding to postdocs so that you don't have these giant labs manned by 75 year olds who mentored half of their reviewers and who homogenize the idea pool, but it would really suck for your run-of-the-mill PIs.

  • BioSciProf says:

    I'm at the very end of the Boomers Generation and Damn Right I am retiring at 65 , in about 10 years. I'd retire sooner but for that darn health care thing. We have planned mortgage etc to allow this. we have so much we want to do!

    But I will tell you that I am cautious to admit this to colleagues -- it's the senior professor version of the macho "how many hours were you in the lab?" that shames postdocs and grad students into putting in too many hours of non-productive face time. And I need to be viewed as competitive to keep my lab funded and recruit excellent trainees in the next 10 years. It would be fatal for someone to say, "BioSciProf isn't committed to science, so shouldn't get that grant or award". OF COURSE I' m committed to science. I'm also committed to life.

    I have a lot of colleagues who love what they do and can't imagine stepping aside. I suspect it's because many of them don't have anything else in their lives (whereas I have so many interests! ) That macho spend-all-your-time-in-lab means they have nothing outside of it. One guy I know said his wife left him after 20+ years because he wouldn't start taking more time away from the lab after reaching the top of his game.

    For this reason, I am glad to see my trainees are more sensible about having time for them and their families. As the saying goes, no one dies thinking they should have spent more time in the lab. But the macho attitude runs deep.

  • pablito says:

    “I'd retire sooner but for that darn health care thing”

    I retired at 55 and health insurance is my largest regular expense, but with Obamacare you can get coverage. The premiums are about the same as payroll taxes used to be, give or take, so that is kind of a wash financially.

    I pretty much sealed my fate when I transferred my multi-PI R01 to a collaborator and called it quits because of burnout, loss of the lab, and to help with elder care. I’m not sure any of the fellow faculty were envious, and some might even have thought I had a terminal illness or something else wrong. Four years later, I don’t miss the stress of being a PI and running a lab, but I do miss my colleagues and the enjoyable parts of science. That said, however much, or little, status you might of had as a PI, it will likely be even less after you are retired. That’s a little tough to adapt to and I can see why some people never want, or are afraid, to retire.

  • JL says:

    "OF COURSE I' m committed to science. I'm also committed to life."
    "But the macho attitude runs deep."

    What's wrong with someone being satisfied with spending their time in the lab, for whatever reason they choose?
    Not everyone has to have the same "balance" you do.

    You don't like it, you don't do it. Let them be, without the "macho" attacks.

Leave a Reply