Tuesday, 14 February 2012

Why retire?

I've never quite understood why academics retire. Jeremy Bentham wanted his auto-icon propped up in the University long after his death; he's apparently still brought out for the occasional meeting of Council where he's listed as "present but not voting". That doesn't seem all that bad.

Nick Rowe wonders why people bundle so much leisure into retirement. It's difficult to conceive of models in which doing so is optimal. Sure, work gets harder as we get older, but so too does leisure.
The obvious answer is that our productivity falls as we age. So it makes sense to consume more leisure when the opportunity cost is least. But there's also an obvious problem with that explanation. If our productivity at work falls as we age, maybe our productivity at leisure falls as we age too. Which will get worse more quickly: my ability to give an economics lecture; or my ability to portage a canoe?
Honestly, there's a very short list of things that would have me retire from lecturing:
  1. Being forced to retire;
    • But this does require either legislation mandating a retirement age, or constraints on recontracting for reduced duties and wages commensurate with depreciated human capital. I'm pretty sure Canada has the former. [David Giles, in comments, says Canada no longer forces retirement.]
  2. Health problems that affect labour in more embarrassing fashion than leisure coupled with a stronger sense of shame than I currently have;
  3. Strong technological innovation in leisure-complementary activities;
  4. Technological changes in academia that make lecturers obsolete [read read read]
The fourth I most worry about because it could hit rather sooner than I'd like. Society invests too much in higher education. The bottom tier of students would do better in taking a trade qualification than a Bachelor's; rather too many undergraduates are learning absolutely nothing* [HT: Isegoria]. Things like MITx (InsideHigherEd) will let top institutions provide more credentialling services for those who ought to have university training. Government R&D funding has been being crowded out, so when the sector eventually loses the funding coming from students who never really should have been there, academia will contract (and especially severely if MITx takes off). The good times can't last forever.

On the plus side, much of what universities provide isn't really instruction. Instead, it's a bundle of instruction, signalling, consumption, and complex relational and social capital not easily provided elsewhere. The instruction can be handled by MITx, but I'm not sure the rest of it can be. Teleconferencing hasn't eliminated either face-to-face business interactions or academic conferences. That gives me hope I can still be in the classroom in my 80s. But if teleconferencing ever advances sufficiently for virtual conferences to supplant traditional ones,** I'm going to get just a little bit nervous.

* The book cited finds no improvement in complex reasoning, writing, or reading skills among a substantial proportion of undergrads. I haven't read the just-released book, but I expect the problem's largely one of fit. A bottom tier of students just cannot be taught by the methods that are appropriate to the middle and upper tiers of their classmates and would have better outcomes in community college or technical training environments. Starting g matters.

** I think it'll require holodeck-style virtual hospitality suites.


  1. The fourth I most worry about because it could hit rather sooner than I'd like.

    Is that because of this point from the site you cited? ;)

    3. Professors (course developers) will be selected for teaching instead of research brilliance. The brilliant theorist who drones his way through two courses a year while his students fantasize about stabbing themselves in the eardrum with a plastic fork so they can't hear the boring anymore . . . that chap will have no place in the online future.

    1. It's funny that you think I'm a brilliant theorist.

    2. It is an assumption based on the fact that I barely understand half of what you say when you start with the economics-speak stuff. But it is a fine line between brilliance and insanity, so I have my doubts.

  2. I think that university lecturers *should* retire or, at least, departments should be able to get rid of them when they become too geriatric (what lecturers do with their newly found free time is their problem). As a department you would like to have access to people with new ideas, which manages new technologies, etc.

    I promised one of my older colleagues that I would let him know when he becomes an embarrassment. I hope people let me know when I stop making any sense (please do). I would not like to enforce a retirement age but, at the same time, I would like departments to have the flexibility to say (past a threshold age) 'please go and tend your garden'.

  3. "I'm pretty sure Canda has the former"
    Not any more: http://www.newswire.ca/en/story/896813/government-of-canada-strikes-down-mandatory-retirement

    And in fact most Provinces had abolished it some time ago.

    1. Excellent news! I'd not heard that it had changed from my time as an undergrad.