Continuing Assumptions About Aging


Paulo Freire

By Slobodan Dimitrov [CC BY-SA 3.0 ( or GFDL (], from Wikimedia Commons

Writing in InsideHigherEd, Rebecca Gould claims that mandatory retirement at 65 would be “a good first step toward dismantling hierarchies and opening opportunities for many more young scholars.” The assumption, of course, is that young scholars are of more value than older ones. And that older scholars don’t need opportunities. Oh, and that senior academics create, of necessity, abusive hierarchies.

The assumption, also, is quintessential ageism.

As one who didn’t start a serious academic career until he was in his fifties and who is now 66, I’m more than a little biased on this question, but I really don’t see the value of shoving people aside simply because they have lived more years.  I learned this when I was young, from older people.

Perhaps my favorite professor when I was an undergraduate at Beloit College in Wisconsin was a man, Bernard Morrissey, who was approaching 80 (he wouldn’t quite make it, dying shoveling snow soon after my class with him). He taught a course called “A Natural History of Satan,” a literature course I retain more from than any other I took, even in graduate school. Morrissey would stand at the lectern, shiny skin on his head looking like buffed parchment, a fringe of white hair and the most demonic smile I have ever seen hovering over the room of awed undergraduates. In addition to being meemorable, more than any other teacher I have ever had (outside of my dissertation director), Morrissey changed the arc of my academic climb.

For the May/June issue of Academe, Margaret Morganroth Gullette wrote “The Monument and the Wrecking Crew: Ageism in the academy,” an essay in which she writes of the tragedy of “treating aging, in the profession, and in ordinary life, as a decline.” Making the assumptions that Gould makes writes off, without any consideration, the most skilled and knowledgeable part of society. Followed to its logical conclusion, the young might as well just kill us all. Remember Wild in the Streets? Remember “Don’t trust anyone over 30”?

Maybe we have to be older to understand how stupid we were when we were young. Certainly, we’ll never learn that at all if we cull people out as their hair grays.


6 thoughts on “Continuing Assumptions About Aging

  1. I suspect if translated honestly it would simply read “Make room at the top.” As an undergraduate and graduate student, and in my developmental years as a faculty member, I had great professors and mentors (and then colleagues) of all ages–in other words, age was not any kind of index to knowledge, originality, compassion, wit, rigor, or excitement. Important to note especially is that in my observation at least, older faculty seem to have a broader commitment to program, institution, discipline, profession, and the greater good. Perhaps that’s a luxury of having achieved tenure and senior status, while the young are more career-focused because they are still not privy to the freedoms of senior faculty; or perhaps it’s a factor of the times in which people grow up…. I was placed in Physics 101 when I started college, despite not having taken senior math (!)–so physics certainly did not come easy to me. My classroom professor was at least 65 years old, looked older, a passionate and funny Chinese (I mention this because his English was heavily accented) Full Professor who had a PhD in philosophy as well as his physics degree. My lab instructor was in his late twenties, relatively recently hired, recent degree, a creative, energetic, curious, challenging man who earned a pilot’s license so he could visit his girlfriend on weekends. I worked very hard for both of them; I was challenged beyond my preparation by both of them; I learned Physics from both of them. More important, I learned to LOVE physics from both of them. Age was not even in the equation, and it should not be. Just as we are expected to see our students as individuals, we really have to remember to see each other that way too.

  2. Death panel for the academy. It would be interesting to see if older women bear the brunt of higher ed ageism, or if gender makes no difference here. I know there is a huge industry devoted to helping women look younger so we don’t get phased out.

  3. As another person who entered academia as an older scholar, and values having a very wide range of age and experience among my colleagues, I completely agree with this. There are however real problems for young would-be academics as we all know and this is not an argument that will convince any of them that they should, as they are being encouraged to believe, go without a job so that old people can their job down for another 25 years …..
    There are real arguments which should be made. I speak from the UK and NZ here but similar arguments apply in the USA and Canada. The successful diversion of attention away from the super rich and floor level taxation etc as the cause of casualization and minimal new hiring to the emphasis on generational inequality and demonizing of baby boomers needs to be challenged at every point. We need to explain that 1) until the generation of the baby boomers old people were the poorest group in society and lived in desperate circumstances. Well-off older people are a societal good and moreover 2) they are staying well-off because they vote – sadly for the conservatives but the impact of electoral power should be pointed out. Academics are being scalped because their students don’t vote and they don’t understand the consequences for them. 3) The shortage of academic jobs is not about the person staying in the office who you actually see – it is about the absence of other new jobs. This may not be entirely true and there must be demographic data that could be used to establish the extent to which the expansion of universities in response to birth cohorts means that there are older academic cohorts which are bigger than those which followed – this can be set alongside the expansion of tertiary education to show how many new jobs there should be. When we have presented these arguments, then and only then, should we be telling lovely stories about the older academics we respect and love to younger people who don’t have jobs.

    • You make good points, but we should always remember that this is no “zero-sum” game. The faculty is being squeezed not because people are working longer but because universities do not value their faculties. Pitting older faculty against younger should never need to happen and the fact that it is happening now is a sign not of job hoarding by the “haves” but of job strangling by those who hold the purse strings.

    • I’m not so sure the job shortage problem is due to a shortage of students. In my neck of the woods, enrollment is growing but institutions aren’t hiring people on fully paid tenure track lines. They want to “keep instructional costs low” (as our college president told the faculty senate). So, obviously, they hire hundreds of qualified people at sub-standard wages to teach the growing student body. Granted, mine is a public university and the state government is scrimping on us. Clearly a lot of the private colleges are doing the same, cutting back on tenure track lines and trying to hire academic labor cheap. As for the issue of forced retirement, all I can say is that one of the main reasons a younger me wanted to become a professor was that I found out I wouldn’t have to retire at 65 and be bored for another 10-20 years. And so far I have been improving with age and getting along pretty well with the young colleagues, too.

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