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When’s the right time to retire?

With retirement at age 65 no longer mandatory in Canada, members of the boomer generation – including academics – are asking that pivotal question.

By MOIRA FARR | OCT 20 2014

“I’m absolutely not burned out,” says Michael Groden over the phone from his home in Toronto as he prepares for a run on a warm day in June. At 67, the distinguished James Joyce scholar was officially retiring in a matter of weeks. There had been “a couple of parties,” as well as papers to sign to remind him that he wouldn’t return to teaching at Western University in the fall, as he has for the past 38 years.

He likes that he’s leaving while he feels energetic and in good form. It’s particularly meaningful for a man who was diagnosed with Stage 4 melanoma at age 32 and who has confounded his doctors by living, working and remaining healthy beyond any predictions given to him back in 1982. Whatever he had to prove, he proved long ago.

“I have no regrets,” says Dr. Groden about his decision to retire now, although he is sad that his position as a professor of early 20th-century literature will not be replaced. He’s finishing a memoir and looking forward to travelling and continuing to research the writer who has inspired him since he first read the novel Ulysses at age 19.

Dr. Groden is hardly alone in working beyond the once standard retirement age of 65. At Western, the number of faculty choosing not to retire at 65 has risen steadily since the lifting of the mandatory age requirement in 2006. Today, 95 of Western’s 1,100 professors – close to 10 percent – are older than 65, and 21 of these are in their 70s.

That reflects what’s happening at most universities as well as larger social trends. In 2012, Statistics Canada reported that 24 percent of Canadians aged 65 to 69 were still in the workforce, compared with 11 percent in 2000. That percentage is bound to keep rising with shifting economic and social forces and as the age to receive federal old-age benefits moves to 67 from 65.

The truth is, we are healthier and living longer than any previous generation. With an arbitrary age limit no longer in place, the decision about when, why and how to leave the workforce has become a highly personal one. More of us want to continue working in later life because we genuinely enjoy what we do and still feel the passion and energy to do it.

And, of course, financial considerations play a large role in any decision to retire, or not. More people have children in their mid-to-late 30s and older, meaning they are putting their offspring through university when they themselves are homing in on retirement age. Female academics, in particular, may have inadequate pensions because of delayed or interrupted career paths, and they argued strongly for abolishing mandatory retirement at age 65 when the issue was debated in provincial legislatures. For faculty with defined-contribution or hybrid pension plans, stock market performance can help determine the timing of retirement. After stock markets plunged in 2008, University Affairs documented the trend to delay retirement the following year, finding that at many universities, from a third to half of faculty were choosing to delay retirement once they reached age 65.

The implications of these decisions, both culturally and financially, are huge. “The salary bill is increasing every year,” says Alan Weedon, vice-provost, faculty, planning and policy, at Western. The “salary mass” for the 10 percent of professors who are choosing to delay retirement is close to $20 million; a similar percentage of entry-level faculty salaries would cost half that figure, he says.

The trend is necessarily changing the way that universities spend their budgets for faculty salaries, already a sore point for younger academics aspiring to be hired full time. Ideally, university departments maintain a balance of new, mid-career and senior faculty. In 2010, according to Statistics Canada, roughly 20 percent of Canadian faculty were under 40 and nearly 20 percent were older than 60.

“Many faculty over 60 do not have the energy they did 20 years earlier,” observes Glenn Cockerline, as he contemplates his own retirement next year, at 65, from the faculty of education at Brandon University. “I think we become pessimistic and inclined to say ‘No, we can’t do that’ to new ideas. You need younger faculty to say ‘Wait a minute, why can’t we do that?’”

Given the growing number of part-time university instructors vying for an extremely limited number of new full-time positions, it’s not surprising that resentment may be aimed at the boomer generation of professors choosing to stay on past 65. When University Affairs published an article on delayed retirement (“Faculty postpone retirement across Canada,” February 2009 issue), reader Zita Mendes posted a plaintive comment on the website, summing up this sentiment: “Please make retirement at 60 mandatory for teachers and give the young, new graduates a chance to start their career and breathe new life into your education system.”

Ms. Mendes now says she “responded emotionally” because her brother at the time wasn’t having any success finding a full-time job in academia, despite impressive credentials in mathematics. The 32-year-old has since found a position at the University of North Carolina, but the stressful job-hunting experience has made him think about his own career trajectory, says Ms. Mendes. “He says he’d like to retire at 60 to give others a chance.”

In August 2013, a blog post by Philip Schrodt, a Pennsylvania State University political science professor, went viral with its witty, critical take on contemporary academia and its list of reasons why the tenured 62-year-old was choosing to retire (which he has since done). “There is absolutely nothing worse than the stereotypical old fart in the cluttered office telling people ‘It’s all crap!!!’ ” wrote Dr. Schrodt, “while pulling down, year after year, a handsome if static salary – and I’m perilously close to that.” His post, “Going Feral: Or ‘So long, and thanks for all the fish…’ ”, unleashed a continent-wide storm of response, as contemporaries weighed in with their own critiques of academia and as younger university instructors heartily agreed with his analysis.

But, not so fast with the blame game, argue some stakeholders. “The staffing crisis at universities today is not the fault of older professors delaying retirement,” says economist David Robinson, the new executive director of the Canadian Association of University Teachers. He points out that universities now offer incentives and phase-out programs to encourage professors to retire, and many are going this route. Resentment of older colleagues is misdirected, concludes Mr. Robinson. “The lack of jobs isn’t because these senior people are standing in the way. Institutions need to develop a more comprehensive approach to faculty renewal.”

Most academics do still retire by 65 and definitely before 70, leaving a modest number of professors (just one percent of the faculty workforce in Canada) staying on into their 70s – often those who have been the most productive throughout their careers. “Our folks love our jobs. It’s not like they’re on a heavy assembly line,” says Mr. Robinson. “Every faculty member should be able to retire in dignity when they want to. They have a right to stay on if they’re making a contribution.”

At whatever age academics do choose to retire, they tend not to be idle or preoccupied with leisure activities. Like Dr. Groden, they frequently pursue research and writing projects – related to their fields, or not – that were put on the back burner during their years as a full-time academic.

“Ending my teaching career was a clear choice, based on the sense that the time was right,” Dr. Groden said in a speech to colleagues at Western last April. At another get-together in May, he joked that opening the door to retirement “will reveal how strong the hinges are.”

Reflecting on the two major characters of the novel he’s studied for so long, he concludes: “I’m a lot older than both Leopold and Molly Bloom now – at my age, I could even be the parent of either one of them – but then, we can always learn from those who are younger than us. As long as they continue to speak to me, I’ll never put Ulysses down.”

Starting the conversation ahead of time

Geraldine (Jody) Macdonald, senior lecturer, Lawrence S. Bloomberg Faculty of Nursing, University of Toronto, age 62
Helping to organize a conference on retirement sponsored by the Retired Academics and Librarians of the University of Toronto last April was an eye-opener for Jody Macdonald. “Seventy-five members of the U of T faculty association signed up, and only three of those were planning to [retire] in 2014,” she says. Some in attendance were on the younger end of the retirement scale and some were in their mid-to-late 60s. Everyone’s situation is unique, and individuals need to pay attention to details in the options for life insurance, health and disability benefits, she concluded. Dr. Macdonald – with a 25-year-old daughter in graduate school – says she won’t be retiring soon herself. “Every year I say ‘I’ve got five years’,” she laughs. But whatever date it is, she’s determined to be well informed and, through both the faculty association and RALUT, to advocate for others.

Phasing out early

Lawrin Armstrong, professor of medieval studies, history and economics, Centre for Medieval Studies, University of Toronto, age 55
“You only live once,” says Lawrin Armstrong, explaining why he’s decided to take a phase-out retirement package that will see him scale back on teaching over three years and fully retired by age 60. For many years, Dr. Armstrong has split his time between Canada and Germany, where his German-born wife, also an academic, is based. He’s grateful and appreciative of the flexibility afforded tenured faculty like him over the years. But the long commute can be wearisome. “I like what I do, but after 23 years I think I’ve had enough,” he says. “I’m inclined to agree with the American guy [Philip Schrodt]. In a field like medieval studies, there’s a finite amount of work. If people like me never retire, younger people will never get jobs. We’ve got to move on.”

Making room for the younger generation

Deborah Poff, past president, Brandon University, age 65
Shortly after Deborah Poff announced that she would be leaving her position as president of Brandon University at the end of her five-year term, she reflected on how much work she’d be doing when she officially retired (in August 2014) at age 65. Major research projects – including a novel and a book on ethics and leadership in the public service – are brewing. “I can continue to have the kind of career I want. I don’t intend to work full time as a professor, but I will be a researcher and a grant holder,” says Dr. Poff. She believes that every university must strive for balance in the age and stage of its faculty members, and she feels an obligation to move on. “Younger folks need the opportunities, and universities need continual renewal.”

Wise elder likes what he does

Robin Enns, professor in the department of curriculum foundations in the faculty of education at Brandon University, age 69
In May, Robin Enns attended a powwow for graduating aboriginal students at his university. It’s the custom for younger people to serve stew and bannock to their elders at these events and although Dr. Enns wasn’t identified as such, a student served him his food. “It meant something to me,” he says reflectively. He’s now in retirement-planning mode and expects to be gone by 71. Dr. Enns came to Brandon 26 years ago as dean of education and has filled various roles ever since. “I like what I do,” he says, explaining why he has stayed past 65. “I like the university I work in. There’s a lot of creativity in my approach to education. And I like the students.” As for making room for younger faculty, he’s on board – or off, you might say, since he has stepped down from all but one of the major committees. “Younger faculty members need the opportunity to serve, to represent the university and develop their own judgment and leadership abilities.” While he’s looking forward to more time for “building and fixing things” and cruising the Danube with his wife, he says he wouldn’t turn down an offer to return to Brandon as an adviser, if asked: “I don’t plan to go to sleep!”

Back by popular demand

Michael Nightingale, chair, department of family relations and applied nutrition, University of Guelph, age 78
Professor Michael Nightingale did retire, because the regulations stipulated he had to, when he turned 65 in 2000.  Almost immediately, however, he was asked to return and head a collaboration between the University of Guelph and Humber College as vice-provost, academic. The arrangement was a five-year contract that ended in 2005. The next year he said yes again when asked if he’d teach a first-year seminar on a range of topics related to poverty. In 2012, he agreed to take on the full-time acting chair position he now holds. “Age isn’t an issue for me,” says Dr. Nightingale. “I think you know from the people you’re serving when it’s the right time to go.” The university clearly believes he has much to offer. But, he says, “I do have some concerns for those at the other end of their careers, where there aren’t as many appointments for PhDs.” When this term ends in 2015, he’d like to write a reflective piece on leadership in education.

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  1. Mary Valentich / October 8, 2014 at 9:00 am

    Given the wide range of diverse activities in which so-called retirees engage, could we not just drop the misnomer “retire?” The connotations are inaccurate and unpleasant: old farts in cluttered offices, not knowing when to bow out. I just say I left my full-time paid employment and diversified my professional, social and leisure interests.

  2. Tuula Heinonen / October 8, 2014 at 9:30 am

    I am interested in the gender disaggregated statistics on academic retirements. I believe there may be differences between when and why female and male faculty members retire. Is there any data on this?

  3. Omar Biggs / October 10, 2014 at 11:30 am

    The amount of six-figure-earning senior citizens in my department who have not published a paper or monograph in over twenty years, and not taught anything like a full course load since the year 2000, truly addles the mind. Good old Baby Boomers, the generation that filled its belly to point of bloated satiety and never saw fit to leave any scraps for those who came later…

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