On Beyond the Academy

This year I turned 60, a birthday that starts a whole series of internal clocks ticking: five years to Medicare (if it still exists); ten years until full social security benefits (if they still exist). Then there is the realization that the end of my life is, while not imminent, approaching.  According to the benefits calculator at the Social Security Administration, the average female-bodied person who is my age has about 26.1 years left to live. This is a lot of time, and barring unexpected complications, it will probably be more like 30 years if my robust mother is any indication.

Like many people, I aspire to using these decades well. Accomplishing this has something to do with how much work any of us has left in us, and if so, what that work will be and to whom, other than the students to whom many of us have devoted ourselves, that work will be meaningful. When I wrote a dear friend a few years ago to congratulate her on a well-deserved retirement, and to express my senior envy, she noted that I wasn’t far behind her. “Do the math,” she pointed out bluntly. “It’s closer than you think.”

I like the idea of retiring. But what does that really mean nowadays? Furthermore, since I have been working full-time in universities for only 28 years, I may have at least as many intellectually productive years left as I have already worked. Although I may not be as quick as I used to be, I may be capable of using my time better. I am better disciplined and less easy to distract than I was when I was younger. Time consuming things I won’t have to do in the last 30 years of my productive life include: come up for tenure, buy and sell houses, stay out drinking with friends, look for work, learn how to write a commercial book proposal, or experience the election of Donald Trump for the first time. This leaves a lot of time for other stuff.

I have always maintained that I don’t want to hang on in a university job longer than I am useful to others. Turning 60 has also made me realize that there is another dimension to this: I don’t want to work any longer than being formally employed is actually useful to me. Other people, of course, look ahead to retirement with dread. In 2014, then-president of the American Historical Association Jan Goldstein reported in “Retirement as a Stage in the Academic Life Cycle” (Perspectives, October 2014) that in a study sponsored by TIAA-CREF, the good people who manage academic retirement accounts, and conducted by the Chronicle of Higher Education in 2013, only 15 percent of faculty over the age of 60 wanted to retire at 65, and most of those people did not believe they could afford it. 

To read the rest of this post, published at Public Seminar on August 1, 2018, click here.

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