Tuesday, August 15, 2006

 

The Gray Ceiling

A commenter to yesterday's post alerted me to this article about “the gray ceiling.” It's a newish term used to describe workplaces in which the promotion and/or employment prospects of Gen X'ers are stymied by a huge cohort of Boomers (and pre-Boomers) who just won't leave.

It's a nice piece. It makes the cogent point that, unlike other glass ceilings, the gray ceiling is particularly immune to legislative or judicial remedy. If a reasonably large company promotes only men or only whites, it will have a hard time defending itself against a discrimination claim. On the other hand, if it never puts anybody under 50 in a position of real responsibility,the courts wouldn't even recognize a claim.

Under federal law, age discrimination is actionable only when it hurts the old. When it hurts the young (say, through excessive and/or specious requirements for experience), it's hunky-dory. Hiring for diversity in race or gender is smiled-upon; hiring for diversity in age is actionable.*

I saw this firsthand last year, when I served on (but didn't chair) a search committee for a very senior position. The chair of the committee, one of my very favorite people here, drew up a template for awarding points to the c.v.'s we received, so we could decide which candidates to invite to campus for interviews. So far, so good. The job posting listed a few requirements and several preferences, so we had a pretty good idea of what criteria to use for the first cut.

The eye-opener for me was how the 'experience' category was coded. Experience at the desired level was valued linearly, so the five years between 15 and 20 counted for as much as the first five years. (The template itself has been relegated to the back files, so I'm working from memory.)

To my mind, this is blatant age discrimination. I'm willing to concede that the first few years of experience at a given level count for something; certainly I made some judgment calls in my first year of deaning that I wouldn't make now. But it strains belief to say that the marginal gain in proficiency at a job from year 11 to year 15 is as dramatic as the gain from year 1 to year 5. After a certain point, I'd wager, people have pretty much learned what they're going to learn at a given position. After that, they're mostly repeating themselves. I'll take it farther. There's a point somewhere along the line – I won't venture to say where – at which performance probably actually starts to drop. Not to the same degree for everybody, and probably not always at the same point, but it's there. We all have blind spots. As those blind spots get ignored for longer and longer, nasty stuff can fester in them. The occasional change at least changes the blind spots, so stuff long-ignored can be addressed, and the stuff newly ignored will probably be able to coast on capital for at least a little while.

The thirty-something hotshots in the article, by and large, got around the gray ceiling by leaving their companies and starting new ones. In much of the private sector, that's an option. Not so much for academia. As much as I'd enjoy setting up Dean Dad University, and running it according to my twisted ideology and devilish whims, it ain't gonna happen. (There's a movie coming out about a bunch of 18 year olds who set up their own college, so they can spend their parents' money on beer for four years. Because certainly no such thing ever happens at established colleges.) The barriers to entry are astonishing, and the price competition with the public sector suicidal. Absent the support of some major sponsor (a religious denomination, the government, or profit-seeking investors), I just don't see it.**

(The other great exception for academia is tenure. Lifetime tenure, combined with no mandatory retirement, is a recipe for a gray ceiling. I've written on that before, so all I'll say is that a reasonable proposal might be to have tenure expire at 70. People can still be full-time faculty after 70, but only if they win a fair fight for the job. If that strikes you as unreasonable, ask yourself why.)

I can see the appeal of requiring excessive amounts of experience. It's easily quantified, it's measurable, there's a presumption of relevance, and nobody ever got in trouble for doing it. Since the class most hurt by it lacks the legal standing to argue a case, there's a certain “no harm, no foul” appeal. But that still doesn't make it right.


*The exception to this is when the gray ceiling also happens to coincide with disallowed versions of discrimination. You have to pick the right kinds of bias.

** I am open to being proved wrong on this. Messrs. Gates and Buffett are welcome to contact me with offers of pornographic amounts of money. I'll be happy to name buildings after them. Perhaps the Bill Gates entomology lab, in honor of all those Microsoft bugs? The Gates and Buffett memorial center for Anti-Trust Studies?

Comments:
If Gates and Buffet do come through on this, please allow me to be first to apply for a job.
 
Perhaps something can be learned from research on teaching at the K-12 levels... It says exactly what you surmised about the value of experience; the first 3 or 4 years are exceptionally valuable in terms of the relationship to student achievement (the only metric we really have) and then there is a serious decrease in relevance of experience until about 15 years.

Slight blib, then, generally, flat.

Or, that's what my memory tells me.
 
The problem was exacerbated by the dot.com bust a while back.. Before the bust a good number of people in their 50s were looking at retirement in a few years, because they could afford to retire comfortably. Now health issues are about the only thing that will force them out, and those darned boomers are also health obsessive... sigh.
 
The real issue, I think, is not so much in hiring decisions (even for administrative positions), but the huge group of us (yes, I'm a member of it) who entered academis 30+ years ago and are still here--and who do not face any mandatory retirement rules. In my academic program, the youngest faculty member is nearly 40. The median nnumber of years at my institution of the faculty in my program is about 15. The median age of tenured faculty members at my institution is 58--and rising nearly one full year for each year that passes. This means there is essentially no rom for newer, younger faculty.

I plan on doing my part, though, and retiring as soon as a fairly valuable benefit vests--in six years.
 
Actually my plan is to retire and become a post-doc in places I would like to live.

However, to get back to the point at hand, I think we would all do well if we followed the football coaches and went to a system of rolling contracts, between 5 and 10 years. That way there is a review each year, and you have notice that you have to improve, or an extended contract
 
How come we baby boomers get blamed for everything when the problems you've mentioned are, more often than not, systemic?

Many of my friends did what was supposed to be the right thing: they graduated from college in four years, spent another year getting a credential, and went to work in K-12 schools when they were in their middle 20s.

So today, they're in their middle 50s, they've been working 30+ years, they're (some of them at least) burned out and tired, but they still can't retire because out here in California, they'll take a real financial beating if they're gone before 60. What are they supposed to do? Hope for a Generation Xer who'll volunteer to help pay the mortgage?

Then there's people like me, community college teachers who worked as freeway fliers for years (fifteen in my case) because there were absolutely NO full-time job openings. None. From 1971-1987, we hired zero full-time English teachers in the community college where I work even though enrollments doubled or tripled during that same time.

Because I was teaching in several school districts, I was teaching 'way more than full time, but very little of my work counts towards retirement. Unless I'm willing to live on a retirement check that won't even cover my house payment, I can't retire until I'm at least 63, and by then I'll have been at it for nearly 40 years.

So I'm this grey-haired greedhead (I'll admit to the former) whose avarice is standing in the way of fresh young blood? Gimme a break!

Philip
 
You should also take a look at "Age Bias or Anti-Adjunct Bias?" at today's Inside Higher Education.

Philip
 
" I think we would all do well if we followed the football coaches and went to a system of rolling contracts, between 5 and 10 years."

The problem is, in a system as money-poor as DD describes, the inevitable result of this will be a decrease in the number of young faculty hired, as the college is required to pay more per permanent position to compensate for the lack of tenure -- but still has the same number of classes which need to get taught.
 
Just in case I was not clear, I do not think that the choices made by baby boomers hasve created the "grey ceiling" in higher ed. I also think it's systemic, but exacerbated by a population bulge. It's not our choices, but our numbers, that have created the "grey ceiling," and the cobbling together of part-time gigs to make a less-than-full-time income.
 
Doc is right. The problem is structural, and exacerbated by practices (like the over-valuing of experience) that seem benign in themselves, and that would be benign in other contexts. That makes it harder to solve, even when the 'impact' is 'disparate,' which it is.

The IHE piece raises a different, though related, issue, which is what to do when a long-time adjunct applies internally for a full-time role. I don't know the specifics of the case in question, so I won't address it, but the larger question is double-edged. If you adopt a 'farm team' system in which adjuncts have presumptive 'dibs' on jobs, then you guarantee that the only people who will get full-time jobs will be people who can afford to live as adjuncts for decades on end. (I agree that adjuncts are badly exploited, having been one.) You also guarantee that nobody gets a job while their research is still fresh. Horrible, horrible idea. On the other hand, it's obviously offensive to tar long-term adjuncts with the 'fallen woman' label. I don't think there's an elegant solution to this, short of a massive new wave of full-time hiring. If there were enough f-t jobs to go around, this issue would go away naturally.
 
"People can still be full-time faculty after 70, but only if they win a fair fight for the job. If that strikes you as unreasonable, ask yourself why."

I did. And the simple answer is that 70 year old professors deserve the same job protection from bean-counting administrators and the same guarantee of academic freedom that tenure provides that a 69 year old professor should get.
 
Dean Dad,

How old are you anyway?
 
I'm also a member of the Boomer generation, and, having worked for fifteen years in high schools and eight in a community college, I feel like I'm just now hitting my stride. I can appreciate the wisdom that I have gained from my years in education, I work very hard to remain current in theory and practice, and I am active in professional groups. I don't feel that I'm taking the place of anyone else or keeping someone younger than myself from having a job. I worked hard to get to where I am, and I love what I do.
Moreover, I feel appreciated by my dean.
I sometimes get the impression that you see anyone over fifty as being an unproductive member of the faculty, taking up space that could be better filled by younger, fresh out of school academics.
It's not that I believe that all teachers over 65 who are still teaching are brilliant at what they do, but that there are many who are making important contributions to their schools through teaching, committee work and mentoring younger faculty.
Could you explain a bit more clearly how you feel about older faculty?
 
The danger of even mentioning something like this is that the ad hominem attacks start pouring in. Honestly, I expected better.

As my profile indicates, I'm in my thirties.

What I'm looking for is some kind of balance in the age distribution. At my current college, the median age of full-time faculty is 59. That strikes me as about ten years high. Some of the senior faculty are outstanding, some average, and some limping across the finish line, as you'd expect. That's not the point. The point is that an entire generation of folk, some of whom are also quite strong, is being shut out, and there's no remedy at hand for them.

Most of the faculty I've hired since coming here have been 45-55. (There has only been one under 40.) That's because I don't punish individuals for systemic failures. I hire the best people I can get. My point is that I'm hiring far fewer than I'm losing, and the tenure system as it exists now means that the ones who are limping across the finish line -- slowly -- can take their sweet, sweet time. We make up the difference by screwing over my generation. Pardon me for noticing.
 
"At my current college, the median age of full-time faculty is 59. That strikes me as about ten years high."

And here's what some of us may as well be hearing:

"At my current college, the percentage of white faculty is 87. That strikes me as about 13 percent too low."
 
Dead wrong. I'm arguing for more diversity, not less.
 
Ooooh, a racism parallel! A new rhetorical low. ("What he says indirectly impugns a system that works to my advantage! What can I say to demonstrate the moral superiority of my position? Uhhh...racism! Yeah! That'll do it!")

Bro, the odds that you'll be compared to Hitler or the Nazis before the week is out have bettered to 3:1.

You gotta love the internet.
 
I do understand your desire for more diversity in age. Yet I recall reading a description one time of a UPS driver who was in his late 40's or early 50's. The company had hired someone to sprint alongside him with a stopwatch as he delivered packages. If he was a few seconds off their average, he'd be fired immediately.

No tenure after 70 = sprint harder than your younger peers, because the stopwatch is ticking.

Not everyone (not even every academic) has a healthy retirement plan after the rampant corporate plundering of retirement funds and the plunging stock market. And some, as other commenters have mentioned, may even have some knowledge still to contribute.
 
"And some, as other commenters have mentioned, may even have some knowledge still to contribute."

[whispers] Psssst! The crystal on your palm is glowing...
 
Well, Dean... let's start with this...

YOU drew the comparison to racism and sexism when you wrote:
"If a reasonably large company promotes only men or only whites, it will have a hard time defending itself against a discrimination claim. On the other hand, if it never puts anybody under 50 in a position of real responsibility,the courts wouldn't even recognize a claim."

In addition, you seemed to bemoan the fact that "the gray ceiling is particularly immune to legislative or judicial remedy."

By defining (or continuing to define) the discussion by the use of the phrase "grey ceiling" you have intentionally drawn a comparison to a rhetorical phrase used to highlight a technique cited as allowing for sexism and racism in the workplace--a charge that your comment quoted above seems to support.

The problem I had with your overall assessment is that the older faculty members I know really hit their strides after 20 years in the faculty. They are seasoned. They have well established research programs and records. They are not just academics, they are mentors--to the younger faculty and students. They are highly respected not only in academia but in the business world as well.

You wrote: "Experience at the desired level was valued linearly, so the five years between 15 and 20 counted for as much as the first five years...To my mind, this is blatant age discrimination. I'm willing to concede that the first few years of experience at a given level count for something... But it strains belief to say that the marginal gain in proficiency at a job from year 11 to year 15 is as dramatic as the gain from year 1 to year 5."

I would agree (as would my wife--in her 30-somethings) that it should not be linear. But as my wife pointed out in our discussion here of late the equation should be exponential. Your experience as you age should count for more, and not less. Your ability to draw on a depth and breadth of knowledge is far greater after 10 or 15 years than it was at 1, or 3, or 6.

And one final note: I have not seen a shortage of youthful faculty in the major research universities. Certainly not in the Engineering and Business disciplines. Perhaps your experience base is a bit too... um... narrow?
 
The business and engineering wings of major research universities are generally able to replace people who retire, thereby ensuring that generational diversity occurs naturally. I'm writing in a context in which the full-time faculty is both very senior, as a cohort, and not being replaced on a one-for-one basis as it leaves.

Is my experience base narrow? In a sense, yes. Quick quiz: which are more common in the U.S. - doctoral granting universities or community colleges?

The elite institutions get most of the press and get to define most of the terms of public discussion, but they're actually a narrow sliver of the overall picture. Enrollment-driven undergraduate institutions are, by far, the statistical norm. The environment I describe is actually quite common, though you wouldn't know it from the folks who think that American higher ed begins and ends with Harvard.

Yes, I introduced a parallel to race and gender. The point was to say that if we want diversity, we have to be willing to make an effort. A commenter attempted to twist that around to make it sound like I was trying to enforce uniformity, which is simply the opposite of my plain and evident meaning. I can only assume that the effort to make me into a straw man comes from fear of addressing what I'm actually saying.
 
I think that what was lost during the discussion was the differences between universities, four-year colleges and community colleges, as well as the differences among community colleges. You have struck a nerve among your readers, and as a few have pointed out, it may well not have been the nerve that you intended to strike.
 
If your inability to discriminate due to age is causing a fiscal crunch, then why don't you just cut back on bean-counting administrators?
 
"If your inability to discriminate due to age is causing a fiscal crunch, then why don't you just cut back on bean-counting administrators? "

It's two! Two! Two! Cheap shots in one!

"An inability to discriminate due to age?" His argument is that age discrimination is already happening due to the nature of the academy, and that he's trying to fight it. So, wrong. Exactly backwards. That the discrimination is directed towards people under fifty rather than over fifty doesn't make it right.

"Cut the bean-counters?" If you've read this blog at any length, you'd know that this has already been done at his CC, and many other colleges, and done repeatedly.

This isn't the result of people being evil, it's an unfortunate byproduct of economics, the structure of the academy, and politics. Recognizing that several generations of scholars have been hosed by this confluence of issues and then trying to do something about it doesn't strike me as a bad thing.
 
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