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June 1, 2020

Research note 2: What is academic retirement?

A life expectancy of 75 may seem low for academics, but it is the average age at which death occurred for the people featured in the weekly obituaries column of The Times Higher over the five years from January 2015. Of course, it does not follow that university dons have a lower life expectancy than the general UK population, because the sample is not a random one. Of the 256 obituaries featured during this period, only a quarter were women, and a significant minority lived and worked outside of the UK, principally in the USA but in a dozen or so other countries besides, across five continents. The oldest lived to be over 100; the youngest was only 37 when he died. One in seven did not reach their sixtieth birthday, but an almost identical proportion lived to be over 90.
At an individual level, the retirement to which academics can look forward is unpredictable in terms of length. The picture of life after work is further complicated by some people choosing to carry on with what they know. The old adage that academics never retire is supported by the many cases in which the obituarist (normally Matthew Reisz) uses phrases such as ‘notionally retired’, ‘nominal retirement’, ‘a committed researcher to the end of her life’, ‘intellectually active to the last’, and ‘even in hospital, continued working on his final paper’. Some easing up is implied in the story told by the medical researcher Denis Mitchison of his decision aged 90 ‘to take Mondays off’. Another nonagenarian, the physicist and educationalist Lewis Elton, ‘hardly let retirement slow him down’; a third, the mathematician Martin Shubik, was ‘a committed researcher right up to his death’. The philosopher Agnes Heller’s continued high profile as a prodigious writer and lecturer prompted an invitation to lunch from Emmanuel Macron when she reached 90.
Instances of leaving academia early are noticeably fewer, reflecting perhaps a correlation between number of years in the job and the likelihood of achieving the distinction needed to be selected to feature in this obituary column. Distinctions in the form of prizes (including Nobel Prizes), medals, honours and citations awarded in recognition of achievement are typically features of later career stages or post-retirement, as in the case of the astronomer Jack Meadows who had a minor planet named after him aged 72. (It should be noted, however, that a similar honour was given to the physicist Christine Floss, who died in her fifties.) The centenarian oceanographer Walter Munk, described as having been ‘a provocative force in science for 80 years’, had both a deep-sea worm and a pygmy devil fish named after him.
Another very long career was Gillet Griffin’s; his association with Princeton lasted over six decades and included a friendship with Albert Einstein. The view associated with Einstein that great careers start young receives support in several obituaries. Aubrey Trotman-Dickenson’s was one such case, highlighting a first article published when he was 21, based on work done at school with his teacher; both went on to become University vice-chancellors/principals. Early achievements mentioned in Claire Sponsler’s obituary include reading Nietzsche aged 7, while Anne Monius traced her academic trajectory to a visit to Harvard University’s Museum of Comparative Zoology at the age of 8. By contrast, other journeys to academic success are prefaced by phrases such as ‘despite his late start’; several accounts chronicle diverse life experiences (such as working as a record store assistant, a docker, a footballer, a singer, a journalist, and doing national service in the armed forces) before devoting attention to university. Still others include the extreme challenges faced by children escaping Nazi Germany via the Kindertransport, or surviving the second world war in a forced labour camp, or being orphaned by a father’s execution. In short, there are diverse career trajectories that range from what are called in the literature ‘early achievers’ to ‘late bloomers’.
Although there are cases of individuals following an idealised pattern of ‘rising through the ranks’ to prominent positions then enjoying deserved retirement pursuing new interests such as writing thrillers, learning to fly aeroplanes, community singing, volunteering, travelling, campaigning, birdwatching, and cultivating their gardens, others stayed in more familiar territory by setting up a publishing house, teaching in a prison, and writing memoirs. Twenty years ago Barbara Tizard and Charlie Owen’s survey of retired academics in the UK found a similarly diverse pattern. At that time, however, fixed retirement ages forced a change which has now become more optional, and the prospect beckons of academics keeping their jobs into their seventies and beyond. In the UK, at least, changed pension arrangements are another variation from the fixed points of earlier generations’ calculations about when and how to retire. This limits the extent to which members of those earlier generations can provide to-day’s academics with realistic role models. For these and other reasons, including the feminisation of the workforce and the precariousness of much employment in universities, the time is ripe for a new study of academics’ later careers and retirement. The Leverhulme Trust are funding me to undertake this, and data are being collected through two surveys of UK-based academics, one for current staff contemplating retirement and another for those already retired.

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