Thursday, April 06, 2006


Generation X Faculty (and Deans): A Response

IHE had a provocative piece yesterday about a study that claims that Gen X (born 1965-1980) faculty see the academy differently than previous generations.

Well, yeah.

As a card-carrying Gen X’er myself, I’ll just say, thank you for noticing.

Why would post-boomers take a different view of tenure, work-life balance, and loyalty to a given institution?

Did human nature change drastically? Doubt it. Is the reach of Dr. Spock finally taking hold? Nah, that would have hit the boomers more than us. Is this simply a misplaced way of observing that people in their thirties have different priorities than people in their sixties? Maybe in part.

Or, maybe, could it be that the rules by which we’ve played have been harsher, and we’ve adapted accordingly?

Hmm. Tuitions were much higher (even adjusted for inflation) in the 1980’s and 1990’s than anytime before, and paid for more with debt than ever before. So this group carried much higher student loans than any of its predecessors. Then add that we were told, as a group, that a ‘great wave of retirements’ would create a great academic job market by the time we got through. (Anyone else remember that?) Instead, we hit the worst academic job market since the Depression. We adjuncted, we temped, we did all the bouncing around it took to get real jobs. (Some of us even taught 45 credits a year at for-profit tech schools.) We endured well-meaning pep talks by tenured faculty whose qualifications didn’t match our own. We endured ad hominem attacks by tenured faculty whose qualifications didn’t match our own. We missed out on the tech boom completely, beavering away at dissertations just as academic publishers stopped publishing dissertations and hiring committees started requiring books. (Do these people even talk to each other?) We got hired at salaries that didn’t even come close to keeping pace with the rate of housing inflation, only to be asked by our well-meaning tenured colleagues why we live so far away. Those of us whose partners are also academics endure(d) long-distance relationships, and sometimes even competitions over which partner gets to have a job this year.

Add to that the increasing length of graduate school (to prepare students for more brutal job markets), the greater number of us who are children of divorce (and who learned early on, in a visceral way, that things change), and a more career-minded group of undergrads who shy away from the traditional academic disciplines, and you have a recipe for, well, a certain grumpiness with the way things are done.

Quick quiz: which of these trends looks likely to change for the millenials? None. The trends I’ve mentioned here have only amplified.

So I’m not shocked that educated Gen X’ers take the prospect of lifetime employment with a grain of salt – that just means we see what’s going on in the world. And I’m not shocked that we make work/life balance a priority – we saw what happened to our parents. And I don’t see why either of these attitudes is bad. To the contrary, they strike me as more in tune with reality than the standard tenured bloviating about ‘meritocracy’ (as if tenured faculty have to defend themselves against newcomers) or ‘loyalty’ (as if most colleges haven’t already established two-tiered pension and insurance systems, giving the young worse deals than the old).

I’ll admit upfront that I don’t expect to retire from the college where I currently work. That’s not at all a slam at my current college; it’s just a clearsighted recognition of reality. With budget pressures, periodic reorganizations, shifting political winds, and the random stuff of life, it would be incredibly arrogant to say that I can forecast where I’ll be in thirty years. That’s just not how it works.

As the post- boomers (much too slowly, given the repeal of mandatory retirement for tenured faculty) increase our presence in faculty and administration, I would expect to see considerably less posturing about Eternal Traditions of Excellence, and more discussion of (and eventual implementation of?) different ways of balancing work and family. And a good thing, too. Let’s drag academia at least into the twentieth century…

My father was an administrator at a large, flagship institution where he served for over 30 years. I was raised to believe that "if you take care of the company, the company will take care of you."

Not long ago, we were talking about the state of the economy and academy. I mentioned how he raised me, and he responded..."yeah, looks like I lied."

It has always been a dog-eat-dog real world, and now education is learning what our friends who work in the business world have always known: look out for yourself.

Fantastic post! Yes, I remember starting grad school hearing about the "wave of retirements" that would allegedly open up hundreds of positions in my field.

By the time I was ABD, my friends and I were fantasizing about a giant earthquake leveling the hotels in San Francisco, where the national convention was taking place that year. We realized that was the *only* way "hundreds" of positions would ever be opened at once.
Okay--no argument about how things have changed--but I am concerned with the push to turn colleges into businesses, which we're not. I think that we can improve schools without tuning them into corporations.
Excellent response. We are finally talking about work-family balance at our institution and about such issues as trailing spouses/partners, a reality the boomers didn't have to deal with. Some really interesting discussion going on about that, with suggestions (from me) to help spouses find jobs, whether in academe or elsewhere. As I told them, a trailing spouse myself, I would have been happy it they'd had a recruiter or someone help me find a job.
Hear, hear! I completely agree. (I got the "everyone will retire!" spiel, too.) I don't think, pace Joanna's comment, that taking into account Gen-X-er's different views of work has to mean turning the academy into a business, AT ALL. I'm just all for getting rid of antiquated models of devotion and dedication (which were built on the model of a one-income family, in which daddy/prof worked and mommy stayed home and tended the farm, so to speak), and traditions about the academic world from the 1970s that do NOT match the world we live in today. I've already left one job (baffling my colleagues who'd been there 30 years) and like you, I don't necessarily see myself in my current job for 30 years (it may happen, but it's not my assumption). But in fact one of the reasons I moved to my new position is that while I wouldn't say that my new colleagues are all Gen-X-ers, they aren't the boomer crowd either, and they were trained in an academy I can recognize. I think paying attention to work/life balance is a GOOD thing, a necessary thing.
I always found the "boomer" and "GenX" labels to be unhelpful (full disclosure, I was born the year JFK died and I feel as if I have very little in common with the boomer stereotype).

As for the valuation of teaching & research? At my institution there are many more "boomers" who are high on teaching and lukewarm to research as the gold standard for tenure; I wouldn't characterize the differential as generational, however. Nor can gender truly account for the differences. I think it's more complicated than that. Fortunately, as a historian, nobody's going to ask me for any more detailed analysis of the contemporary system!
Interesting insights. People ask me (probably about once a month lately) if I am staying here. While I have no idea why they are asking this as I have done nothing to indicate that I'm leaving, I always answer with "I dunno." Because I don't. I like it here, but (because I'm Gen-x?) I don't feel like I can commit to "forever" anywhere. I have a lot of years ahead of me.

BTW, I also agree with Joanna. I wish people would understand that universities and colleges are not businesses - they are investments. If we quit trying to run them like businesses and found a different model, I think we'd be way better off!
It's not going to change until Gen X folks enter into administration (and some have); at both my previous school at my current one, the school is run by an administration and board of trustees who are "silent generation" types: according to our Provost it takes 1 refereed article, 1 national conferece per year and a book after five or start looking somewhere else. And spousal hires? forget it. Survival of the fittest baby.

Will it change - I hope so, but our tenure system out here (Western R1) involves so much hazing that it will take a real hero not to want to crap on those who come after him or her.
we hit the worst academic job market since the Depression.

Are you sure about this? From what I've heard it wasn't quite as bad as the early-mid '70s, when the baby boomers had left college, but the barrel-scrapings brought in to teach them in the late '60s were all sticking around.

Not to say that it didn't suck, and that the wave of retirements was a fantasy. I just think that the phrase is "second worst since the Depression".
As a genuine baby-boomer (b. 1952, sharing a hospital ward with t-rexes and other dinosaurs), I have to react to this post with extreme skepticism. The academic job market at the beginning of the 1980s, when I received my Ph.D. and was looking for work, was every bit as dismal as today--worse, probably--assistant professors were evaluated for tenure by senior faculty who had been hired under much less stringent criteria, and often had not accomplished as much in 30-year-long careers as assistant professors coming up for tenure. Junior faculty salaries had not kept up with inflation and assistant professors in large metro areas had trouble finding housing. Complaints about a lack of personal life, due to the demands of work were rampant.

In sum, this post and the IHE article it is based on confusing life-cycle effects with cohort effects. Dean Dad, as, I believe, a trained social scientist should realize this.
Am I confusing a life-cycle effect with a cohort effect? I really don't think so. Yes, markets have been bad before, but the rate of housing inflation over the last 5-7 years dwarfs anything seen before, the rate of adjunct coverage is the highest in history, undergrad abandonment of traditional academic disciplines is greater than ever before (the largest undergrad major in America is business, which wasn't true twenty years ago), the percentage of adults with divorced parents is the highest in history, cumulative student loan debts are the highest in history, academic presses are shutting down (and those that aren't are moving away from dissertations as a matter of policy), and tenure standards are higher than ever.

Not one of these is a life-cycle effect. These are all cohort effects, and easily quantified ones.

Yes, it has been rough before. But it's far worse now, and will continue to get worse. A broad failure to recognize these basic facts is part of what drives us under-40 types nuts.
I read the IHE article before I came to your blog, which got both my reaction to your writing and my reaction to the article. Subsequently, I've been mulling over several things, and I have to agree with Ancarett that labels are not particularly helpful especially in terms of generations spanning 15 years--I mean, I'm a Boomer and my sister is a Gen X-er and another academic, yet we're able to discuss issues without feeling like we're shouting across a chasm.
Another thing I've been thinking about is that our institutions are so different across the country, both in terms of kind, i.e. community college, R1, private 4-year, and so different in terms of structure--tenure, no tenure--that I'd like to hear more voices weighing in on their specific experiences in order to get a clearer picture.
What's interesting is that a number of comments have hinted at, but not dealt in any depth with, one of the major causes for changes in academic labor markets--the end of mandatory retirement. Prior to change sin federal laws, colleges could require that faculty (and administrators and...) retire at age 65 (or whatever). That is no longer the case.

Of course, it's no longer the case in most employment settings. But in most employment settings, the governing law is the "employment-at-will" doctrine, which allows employers to make retention decisions--for those over age 40 (50? whatever), based on some explicit criteria. Not so with tenured faculty (which is, incidentally, one of the strongest arguements against lifetime tenure--just having tenure expire at age 65 or so wouls be an interesting development).

As a result, despite the aging of the professoriate, fewer and fewer retire. Being a professor remains a good gig, experically for those in the senior ranks, earning a lot of money. The work is interesting, mentally stimulating, but not physically difficult. What's to retire from?
Wowza! I've never been so perfectly described-- that is my world, my life. Awesome post.
Here Here! My reality check came talking to a dean friend who noted that the only reason he was staying was because of his granddaughter. Loyalty means little, working as an adjunct taught me that the hard way!
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Amen... are we brothers?

As per doc's suggestion of mandatory retirement... um... let's put it this way, I'm 38, just got my PhD, and unemployed. At this rate, I may be 40 before I land a tenure-track job, putting me in my late 40s by the time I come up for tenure. There ain't no way in hell that after that much time, effort and energy, I'm going to lie down and submit to forced retirement at 65! Maybe I'll think differently in 20 years, if I ever get a t-t job, but that's my take now.

The problem as I see it (pace Robert Dickeson) is not that older faculty aren't retiring, nor that faculty are paid too much (I still can't believe that crap comes out of the U.S. administration!) but that there is too low a national priority on education, meaning funding for faculty is too low, meaning there are too few positions available. That, and (sad to admit) an overabundance of recent PhDs, who've spent far too long, acquiring far too much debt along the way, in service of an intellectual passion that our society simply undervalues.
The sad thing is that a lack of job loyalty that is so much a part of GenX (and Y & Z and so on) hurts all of us. Yet, I'll probably do the same thing once I have a job.

I am a newly minted PhD and currently on the job market right now and have been having a hell of a time, in part, because I am competing for jobs against folks who have been assistant professors for 3+ years. So, although I have managed to pull off 6 first-author pubs in my 5 years in grad school, that's sh** compared to the accomplishments of people who have been in the field for 5 or 6 years longer than I have.

*sigh* It sucks, but like I said, I'll probably so the same thing when it's my turn.
The poor labor market for new phds is not a sign that society undervalues education, but rather the opposite. Phds are undervalued because there are way too many of them, and we can't make more work for them fast enough. We have way too many of them because as a society we believe more education automatically translates into personal prosperity. We're learning the hard way that it ain't necessarily so.

Plus the looming demographics don't look too good for higher education.

Mandatory retirement was determined by us, as a society, to result in arbitrary age discrimination. Employers were able to make exceptions to mandatory retirement on a case by case basis, and we didn't like how that came out, so we removed the tool from them, putting all the power in the hands of the employee. As a practical matter, in the private sector we don't exactly have employment at will for employees in their 50s and early 60s any longer--the threat of an age discrimination suit has resulted in de facto tenure except in very egregious cases.

Colleges ought to give some serious thought to making tenure last less than a lifetime, making it term-limited in some fashion.
I certainly agree that times are depressingly tough for Generation Xers: the price of housing is in the stratosphere, tuitions (and as a consequence, student loan debts) aren't far behind, lots of competition for a very few tenure-track jobs, and all the rest.

But it's not like we baby boomers grew up like Beaver Cleaver. I was born in 1948 and started teaching in a California community college at age 25. I was the first adjunct member of our English department. All of my colleagues were 10-15 years older than me, and many of them got their full-time, full-pay, full-benefits, tenured jobs by doing little more than picking up the telephone.

For the next 15 years, not a single full-time English teacher was hired. Zero. Not one. In the meantime, enrollments were growing steadily, and a few folks were retiring, too, but by 1988, there were over 60 adjunct teachers in our English department.

During the early 80s, because of one budget crisis or another and because of a couple of terrible decisions by management, teachers from other areas were "retrained" and administrators with reentry rights began teaching English. At one point, of 11 full-time English teachers, 6 had no degree in English. And I don't mean that they didn't have an M.A. or even a B.A.; these folks had only 12 upper-division units in English.

During this time, the price of EVERYTHING, not just real estate (have any of you Xers even heard of "stagflation"?),was going 'way up, so just to pay the rent, people like me--and I'm talking about dozens and dozens of my teacher friends and colleagues--became "freeway fliers," working at 3 or 4 community colleges, teaching 12 or 15 sections of composition each year. It was clear that there was full-time work for us because we were all working more than full time; there just weren't any full-time JOBS.

I'm one of the lucky ones. In 1988, I got the first full-time position that was opened in our English department. I'm going to retire in five years (that'll give me 39 years in the classroom), but because adjunct work counts for very little in our retirement system, the most I can look forward to is about 50% of my regular salary. That won't cover my mortgage payment. We baby boomers didn't all buy houses back in the 70s, and, if we did, one divorce, blows ALL your equity. (Divorce, Dean Dad, affects parents as well as their children).

But, as I said, I'm one of the lucky ones. Many of my boomer friends are still adjunct freeway fliers who will never be able to retire. And many others have given up on a teaching career but have had a tough time finding even relatively menial employment because they're "over-qualified." God knows what's going to become of these baby boomers when they're in their 70s. And please don't tell me that they'll be living off your Social Security payments because in California, teachers don't pay into Social Security.

The problem here isn't an intergenerational conflict; the problem is, well, the capitalist economic system. But that's a whole 'nother story.
Nice post - I agree it is getting harder to be happy as an acadenic under tghe current (or old) system. One thing that you haven't mentioned is that things are worse overseas resulting in an influx of foreign PhDs and postdocs into the US. This drives the supply of academics vying for academic even higher.
Adjunct faculty are the indentured servants of our time -- except that indentured servants at least had some clue when they would be able to pay off their indentures and regain their freedom. California community colleges are supposed to strive to meet the 75-25 rule; that is, 75% of our classes are supposed to be taught by full-time faculty members. We're doing pretty well in my college in my department (math). But some other departments keep adding low-paid adjuncts, who have minimal benefits, instead of recruiting tenure-track faculty. Then, because of caps that are placed on the hours an adjunct is allowed to carry, he or she has to scuttle between multiple colleges just to piece together a living wage. It's brutal.

My school is having a wave of retirements, but it's a junior college, not a research establishment, and the retirements are more of a reflection when the campus was established than any demographic trend. Our pattern is pretty clear, though. Every second or third tenure-track hire in my department seems to be recruited from our adjunct ranks.
I remember the "Silver Platter" speeches we got as new-minted grad students in the late 80s. I got two in two years, since I transferred mid-sequence from a "Public Ivy" to a "Real" Ivy.

From the current standpoint of the end of the first year of my second (third?) graduate career, after founding companies and making Amazing Things happen with really smart people in the real world, after passing up consulting gigs in which I was offered my entire current graduate stipend per week... I'm doing some serious soul-searching. That's the annual stipend, not the monthly one.

Put your futurist hat on, and think about the nature of graduate education in a decade. Consider that trends are not linear; that tipping or breaking points always arise. What will an "adjunct grad student" be? Surely there will be such a thing. What will drive people to abandon realistic respected careers and return to this ridiculous and demeaning mill, except... whatever the heck it is that made me do it?

Actually, what made me do so is the idea of breaking the blasted thing. This is too hard to manage from the outside; nobody listens to Techie Suits when they tell tenured faculty what they should be doing. As academics, "we" listen to each other. "We" Build Consensus. We bitch and moan. Sure, "we" never do anything about it....

Consider, still wearing that futurist hat, what it might be like to try to restructure things from the inside. What might be necessary, sufficient. What could be done.
Bill -- Shh! You'll give me away!

Lefty -- I hate it when someone spoils a perfectly good rant with facts. Sigh.

Your points are generally well-taken, though I'd argue that the relative merit of general inflation (as opposed to inflation confined to the housing sector) is that cost-of-living adjustments will (almost) keep pace. With official inflation around 3 percent and housing inflation in solid double digits, it doesn't even come close.
[Finger to side of nose] No problem, Guv'nor. Safe as houses. Mum &c.

There's another factor, actually. Something that just came to me, sitting here in my Sunday Homework Chair and setting nose to grindstone (and a very nice Espolon añejo to lips) to do my homework.

Kids these days.

No, seriously. I'm not that old.

See, the NPR Ethicist Fellow is on, and he's discussing a student applying for college, and the ethical dimensions of her advanced-degree mother "helping" her with her application.

My wife's head tilted, and she piped in, "My parents never even looked at my homework." Me either. They were nice, and smart, and played a vital role in my education. But they sure as heck never indulged me in Soccer Mom stuff.

I can't help but think that today's Active Extracurricular Youth has a completely different take on what a diligent, rigorous approach might be, whether it's science, engineering, the humanities, the arts, the social sciences. Over the childhood of us 13ers (I prefer it to "GenX", even though I do have some trinitite somewhere....), the world of upper-middle-class academic-wannabe childhood utterly transformed. My sub-cohort spent our time at arcades with quarters, or playing D&D or soccer or doing cross-country.

Kids these days, they have agendas, and texting and stuff. How utterly different their expectations---even as academics---must become.
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