About a week ago, my 25-year-old son Max published an op-ed piece in the Globe and Mail suggesting that freeing Babyboomers of the requirement to retire at 65 isn’t quite the triumph of human rights they’re arguing it is. The right-to-not-retire lobby (which is more accurately a right-to-maintain-university-tenure-and-pensions lobby) seems to have convinced governments across the country that forcing professionally trained oldsters onto the porch isn’t fair, and that they’re desperately needed because we’re facing a labour shortage and, well, that they need work to be happy. Max countered that the labour shortage we’re facing is in the skilled industrial trades (heard of any plumbers demanding the right to keep fixing people’s toilets into their dotage?) and that we’re up to our ears in pen pushers. He also suggested, convincingly, that burned-out pen-pushers of one sort or another are keeping more relevantly-trained and energetic young professionals out on the margins.
I agree with Max, pretty much without any caveats to my agreement. We do need systematic renewal in the intellectual trades, where salaries and tenure ought to be regarded as a suspicious privilege in the first place. The generation seeking to gain the right not to retire really wants the right not to start drawing on their pensions at 65, because it will lower their standard of living. When a sizeable percentage of those working the intellectual trades have no pension whatever, and those arguing that they shouldn’t have to retire are all at the top of the wage and benefit scale, the notion that mandatory retirement is an abrogation of some sort of fundamental human right just isn’t very convincing. On the kids’ side, if the right not to be forced to retire from a cushy job at 65 is a human right, then the right to exercise one’s educated skills at the age of 25 or 30 seems to me an at least equally legitimate right.
That the most energetic pursuit of ending mandatory retirement is coming from tenured university professors and a few civil servants isn’t a surprise. In addition, it isn’t an accident that it is tenured university faculty spearheading the movement, and not instructors from the junior college and trade school system. Those people, along with most elementary and secondary school teachers, tend to go for early retirement, bailing out as soon as they can because they’ve been done in by their comparatively insane teaching loads. What I’m saying, in other words, is this: whether in the public service or the universities, the real aim of the anti-retirement movement may be to protect afternoon naps and full dental plan benefits, not to continue giving service to the community.
There’s more to this than simply a binary argument between held-back young people and the old farts. One of the problems our universities face today is that of intellectual senility, a situation aggravated by lazy and out-of-date teaching from faculty that haven’t renewed their intellectual base in 30 years, and haven’t altered their understanding of the world since they were undergraduates. I’d argue, then, that at very least, anyone seeking the right to retain his or her post and the privileges that go with it past the age of 65 ought to be asked to justify their continued presence on the basis of teaching acumen alone.
There will be exceptions who will prove out in the teaching grid, and not just one or two. They’ll also be the true intellectuals and scholars, and no one will resent their continued presence. But most won’t pass muster. I was a student when many of today’s senior university faculty got their jobs during the astounding period of expansion of the universities in the 1960s and 1970s. Most of the then-young professors I was taught by weren’t intellectuals or scholars. They were clerks who couldn’t believe their good fortune or the middle class splendour it was promising them. They have since fought to enhance their privileged status with both ferocity and cunning. The anti-retirement activities are, in a sense, simply the latest chapter in a long and not-very-uplifting story. The main victim has been the universities and the quality of education they offer, which has descended into a vapid pursuit of the capitalist Zeitgeist on one side, and a vast extension of the Dictionary of Correct Ideas on the other. Neither project has much outlook beyond faculty security and neither is equipping society to deal with the deeply uncertain future we face.
Intellectual tradespersons burn out when they are not permitted to periodically upgrade their toolboxes–or are not required to. The industrialization of the university—faculty unions, the onset of “professional development” and self-serving intrafaculty kangaroo courts to oversee everything from the standardization of curriculum to ensuring that students were being treated fairly and equally (and to protect faculty when and if students complained that they weren’t)— was the primary accomplishment of the “democratization” of the universities that occurred during 1970s and early 1980s. Along with setting up a vast turd-polishing bureaucracy, it has also effectively prevented faculty from seriously renewing or even re-examining their knowledge base. Some faculty who might have become competent intellectuals were caught up in interdisciplinary knife fighting for budget and for students, and within their disciplines, in shadowing their jobs against competitors. Whatever caused them to go south this way, it remains fair to say that as a group, the faculties of Canadian universities chose financial comfort over intellectual adventure, and sometimes over intellectual competence. At this point, they are simply seeking the prolongation of that comfort.
So let the kids take over. They couldn’t be any worse than what we’ve had. Let the self-involved generation of Boomers on the barricades claiming that retaining their faculty offices and their naps constitutes a human right do volunteer work if they need intellectual stimulation, or barista at Starbucks if they “enjoy the human contact” and the income supplement that working affords.
1000 w. June 18, 2005