Thursday, April 06, 2006
Generation X Faculty (and Deans): A Response
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…
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.
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.
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!
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!
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.
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".
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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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