AHA president suggests older historians should consider making way for younger historians

Historians in the News
tags: retirement

Jan Goldstein is the president of the American Historical Association. 

When I talk to French and German colleagues who belong to my generational cohort, I’m struck by the fact that retirement isn’t an obviously fraught subject for them. The rules governing their centralized state systems of higher education include a mandatory retirement age. Particular circumstances may extend it by a couple of years, but the basic principle holds for everyone. A given individual may or may not relish the idea of retirement, but no matter: he or she must accede to it. At the level of practice, then, if not necessarily at the psychological level, clarity and order reign. Retirement, the last stage of the professional life cycle of an academic, is simply a fact of life, an inevitability.

Not so in the United States, where a federal law of 1993 gave tenured professors freedom of choice about when and indeed whether to retire. Freedom of choice in the conduct of one’s life is an intrinsic good as well as a quintessentially American ideal. But in this case it comes with certain costs that deserve the attention of academic members of our discipline, the junior members as well as the senior. For the individual professor getting on in years, the burden of choice can produce a mutually reinforcing cycle of indecision and anxiety—one that is intensified by the relative lack of public conversation about retirement. For the collectivity, elimination of mandatory retirement contributes to the academic job crisis, keeping existing positions filled at a time when broader structural factors—the cutting of college and university budgets, the turn to part-time faculty employment at the expense of tenure-track jobs—have already made new openings painfully scarce. Retirement holds little meaning for young historians in search of their first tenure-track jobs, except insofar as many of them, rightly or wrongly, see the nonretirement of their elders as blocking their own professional futures....

Even a cursory view of the retirement landscape reveals intriguing initiatives designed to respond to the existential needs of retirees. For example, some institutions (Yale, Hopkins, the University of Southern California) have established centers that bring emeritus faculty together for intellectual discussion, research presentations, and camaraderie.3 The American Sociological Association recently created the ASA Opportunities in Retirement Network, including a Listserv for all emeritus sociologists and those at or near retirement age.4 But there has been, to my knowledge, no effort to catalog such efforts or to brainstorm for new possibilities. Institutional and departmental practice with respect to retirees varies enormously and seems to be the result more of happenstance than of considered policy. While some desirable practices require material resources—e.g., providing offices or shared office space for retirees—others that do not are nonetheless often overlooked—e.g., keeping retirees on the department Listserv, inviting them to job talks, and otherwise encouraging their (nonvoting) participation in the life of the department.

I remember a colleague from another university talking at dinner in the early 1990s about her confidence that we baby boomers, who had spearheaded the entrance of women into the academy and pioneered new forms of family, would be equally creative when it came to retirement. I dimly recall her floating the idea of communal living arrangements for retired historians, which would keep us intellectually nimble and productive, and my agreeing that our generation would have the spunk and collective spirit to pull off something like that. While the particular utopia she suggested no longer appeals to me, the idea of a creative and collective response to retirement certainly does. It’s we historians, after all, who introduced the idea that the human life cycle was not entirely prescribed by nature but socially constructed, with stages like “childhood” and “adolescence” demarcated and theorized at the historical conjunctures that highlighted their particular relevance. The moment may have come for us to rethink “retirement.” Perhaps it could be reconceptualized as a problem of intergenerational solidarity, with the older generation recognizing the desirability of freeing up their positions for a younger generation whose professional futures are endangered and everyone recognizing the desirability of keeping retirees in the family. In any case, the AHA can provide a forum for that rethinking. Let the conversation begin.

Read entire article at AHA's Perspectives

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