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…