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Should academia be like Logan's Run? All out at 40?

Updated: Dec 5, 2020

Time to rebirth a bit of blogging. It's been a while, but I recently saw an article about how old professors are blocking the career paths of younger academics.

I wrote about this back in 2014, with a similar feeling that older academics sit in high paying positions whilst junior academics run out of options and leave the field. Depressingly, much of the feedback I received from senior academics was along the line of "I am too important to my field to leave", but that was not the point. I was not saying abandon research but to step out of their academic role to make room for others.

Here's the post as written back then. But now as I'm in my 50s, I am happy to increase the leaving age to 50.


A quick post, as I am still on the road.

One of my favourite movies of all time is Logan's Run (partly because of the wonderful Jenny Agutter, who was also in another fav of mine, An American Werewolf in London). The premise of the movie is that in a futuristic society, to maintain populations, children are manufactured to order and when you get to thirty years of age, you go to carousel where you float up in to the air and explode.

Should academia be like this? Not killing everyone at 30, but how about requiring everyone to leave at 40?

Now, before you start screaming about "academic freedom" and "tenure", hear me out. I quite like the idea. Let's start with what (I think) we can all agree on.

Basically, there are not enough academic jobs, and academic pipe leaks at all stages, with talented people having to leave due to the lack of positions at the next level.

Additionally, prising academics out of their jobs is notoriously hard, with many working until they drop. This is not helped by the push on retirement ages to older and older ages (by the time I retire, in Australia the retirement age will be 70, meaning I have quarter of a century until I can "retire" - although the meaning of that is complex). And, at some point, productivity declines as we get older. Now, my paper output is much larger than when I wore a younger man's clothes, but it is because I have a group of students and postdocs. My personal research time is squeezed by all of the "non-research" academic roles, including teaching and administration etc.

I think many would agree that they would like to be a postdoc for life if they could.

Now for another truth. Academics are expensive. Cards on the table, I am a Level-E professor and my salary is public information and is currently $177,887. The salary budget is a major part of a university's cost, and it is not getting easier as academics are getting more career driven and are climbing the academic scale a lot faster. Universities would save a lot of money if I was replaced with a junior academic, with a lecturer earning almost $95,000.

So, what's my proposal. We'll many sports stars retire quite young, when their bodies are worn, and they can no longer compete with younger incoming stars. This doesn't mean that these people sit around watching afternoon TV, but find new careers. Why don't academics do the same?

My proposal:

  • At 40, academics are given the option of retiring from academia. As we are unlikely to have the funds that sports stars into retirement, the academics are offered a lump sum (3-5 years of pay?) to smooth the transition into another career. This would be cheaper than paying you for the next 30 years.

  • Universities can fill your position with a junior academic with a job until they reach 40.

  • If you decide to stay with the university, your admin and teaching loads increase to ensure the junior academics get lots of research done (but they will still have a teaching and admin role at the university).

  • The "retiring" academics can still hold adjunct positions with the university, accessing resources, supervising students (with the junior staff) and effectively becoming hobby researchers. They could potentially be still be listed on grants and access some funds to attend conferences etc. Companies could view academic commitments as a social contribution and could offer some time (10% of the working week) to these duties.

As a lot of my personal research is done out of hours, I would probably get more done.

Of course, there is the "fear" that you won't get a job at 40, but academics are supposed to be talented, smart people who know how to learn. I am not too stupid to say that academics can magically transform into leading hedge fund managers or brain surgeons, but I doubt we'd end up on the street begging for food. Many people make career stages at many stages of their life; academics are no different.

But what if we get less pay? Well, the payout will help smooth this (and will clear many a mortgage), and we didn't get into this game to get rich now did we?

And in reality, stepping aside doesn't mean that you are exiting the game, you will still contribute and be engaged. But the fact that junior academics will get longer in the game will be better for science and human knowledge. Isn't that a good thing?

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