At least a couple of decades ago, scholars began anticipating the retirement of baby boomers. It was to be a magnificent bursting of the bubble that was created when the U.S. population rapidly expanded in the years following World War II. Years went by, and we watched Dennis Hopper market Ameriprise retirement plans to boomers on TV, by greeting senior citizenship on his own rebellious terms (Mr. Easy Rider was not himself a boomer). We waited. We are still waiting. For those observing higher education faculty, we should go ahead and make ourselves comfortable. Fidelity Investments made headlines this week when it reported its findings from a recent survey on higher education faculty retirement planning, which included, “74 percent of these boomers plan to delay retirement past the age of 65, or never retire at all.”
The Fidelity survey only included benefits-eligible faculty members, which suggests that respondents were full-time faculty (about 40 percent of total U.S. faculty). Even then, without knowing more about how the sample was selected, it’s tough to know exactly what to make of the validity of the findings. However, these data seem to jibe with what many in higher education have observed anecdotally. The other findings from the survey seem similarly plausible: 1) 69 percent of faculty are not retiring for economic reasons; and 2) 81 percent are not retiring for professional reasons (the two groups have some overlap). I’ll take these one at a time:
- It is remarkable, but not surprising, that more than two-thirds of full-time faculty members may be feeling a lingering pinch in their wallets. Fidelity’s survey report finds that more than half of those citing economic reasons for holding off retirement (55 percent) are not sure they have enough savings for retirement. To begin with, full-time, inflation-adjusted faculty pay increased by an average of only 7.7 percent in private doctoral universities from 2001-2002 through 2011-2012. The public sector fared even worse where inflation-adjusted pay either decreased or increased by less than 1 percent across institutions during that period. Private master’s and baccalaureate institutions fared only slightly better than the public sector with 1.9 percent and 4.3 percent increases, respectively. Of course, accounts of faculty layoffs, furloughs, pay freezes, and other economically harmful measures at least indirectly related to the great recession of 2008-2009 continue today. Mix in the harrowing psychological experiences of many retirement-age faculty in watching their portfolios implode, and you have some understandable economic uncertainty.
- Fidelity’s finding that eight in ten full-time faculty are choosing not to retire for professional reasons may be more unexpected to some. It seems many senior faculty really like their work. This finding is not likely to surprise either of two groups, however: those who understand academic freedom is often not fully realized until promotion to full professor or, alternatively, those who believe the academy is rife with lazy faculty, whose job security is nearly absolute.
The glue that may bring these two seemingly incongruous views a bit closer to reconciliation is the acknowledgement that the character of faculty work often changes substantially over the course of a career, and faculty exercise greatest discretion over their own work once they achieve seniority. Some favor teaching to the detriment of research; some favor research to the detriment of teaching; some spend more time outside the university (e.g., consulting, service-learning, action research) to the detriment of commitments on campus; and some choose to pursue heavier university governance responsibilities to the detriment of other work. The point is, one’s notion of what kinds of faculty work are most important tend to color one’s sense of how productive faculty members are. This understanding may be particularly helpful to those criticizing the productivity of senior faculty on grand scale, or those who predict the glut of faculty choosing to push back retirement systemically threatens academic effectiveness.
These latest data suggest the faculty boomer bubble may not burst for some time. This should highlight the importance, now more than ever, of learning exactly how to motivate, support, and manage senior faculty. Just because senior faculty are responsible for a dizzying array of work does not mean all forms of work are strategically equal in importance. Nor does it mean universities can afford for all senior faculty to markedly shift focus away from teaching, away from research, or away from service roles by virtue of their own discretion alone. Key university agents, such as department chairs, deans, and provosts, should be deeply interested in maximizing some of their most valuable assets. They share responsibility with senior faculty themselves for ensuring aging in the profession occurs gracefully.