Occasional reflections on Life, the World, and Mathematics

Oxford University’s ruling body, the Congregation, had a meeting recently to discuss the possibility of abolishing the university’s mandatory retirement age, with the somewhat orwellian title of Employer Justified Retirement Age (EJRA). EJRA is provided for in the 2010 Equality Act that banned various sorts of discrimination, including age discrimination. Every serious discussion of this topic uses pilots as an example: Safety functions depending potentially on fast reflexes, known to decline with age, and hard to evaluate individually. Not really analogous to a typical university post. Instead, the argument is that the old need to be pushed out to make way for the young, a matter of intergenerational fairness. Of course, there is nothing special about universities in this point — except that university posts are seen (by some) as singularly attractive. It’s a kind of discrimination Catch 22: Anti-discrimination law allows people to keep their jobs as long as they wish (and are performing them competently) only if it is a job that is unpleasant and that they would rather quit as soon as possible. If you have an attractive job that you’d like to keep doing, then you have to retire to make way for new people.

Although my research on ageing has concerned itself largely with technical issues, and often with evolutionary theory rather than social issues, I have been interested from the start in questions of variability in ageing patterns, and I have read some of the literature on the destructive effects of age stereotypes. Personally, I’ve always felt strongly attracted to the sartrean dictum that existence preceeds essence and have reacted viscerally to constraints placed on people because of the categories they are associated with.

There is a superficially strong argument that age discrimination is fundamentally different from discrimination based on race or sex or other personal characteristics. Everyone starts at the same age. (As the German artist Kurt Schwitters famously began his autobiographical essay, “Ich wurde als ganz kleines Kind geboren.”: “I was born as a very small child.”)

One of the strong rhetorical moves from the early stages of the disability rights movement in the US was the expression Temporarily Able-Bodied — meaning that everyone is going to have times of disability eventually, so we really should consider accessibility to be a universal concern. No one would say, well, then, it is perfectly acceptable to discriminate against people during their disabled phases. We reject discrimination against pregnant women, and presumably would continue to do so even if the discrimination were explicitly in favour of nonpregnant women.

Furthermore, even when people claim to be talking about intergenerational fairness, it is striking how much the language of age-stereotyping creeps in: “Tired” old professors needing to move on to make space for “dynamic”, “exciting” young researchers.

The real problem is the one-way ratchet that accumulates titles and influence and resources and prestige as people get older. The goose fattens on the grain, and eventually you need to slaughter it to get the calories out. It is perfectly reasonable to resent someone who sits on a sinecure for 40 years because he had a brilliant idea when he was 25, and then he announces that he’s going to keep at it another ten or twenty years. I’ve commented before on the silly cult of genius that allows a James Watson to travel the world spreading his simple-minded demeaning ideas, because he once participated in an important discovery.

Most people eventually find themselves on a downhill slope of intellectual vigour, while formal power and influence only grows. To acknowledge this gap directly feels disrespectful or even distasteful, so we hide behind generalities. Like any lie, the effect is ultimately corrosive. A proper solution requires that we appraise the reality of ageing honestly, both the trends and the individual variation.

An academic career requires enormous up-front investment, and it is in the interest of universities that we commit to this career, rather than thinking about how to polish our resumes in case we need to move to a different kind of job. That means something like guaranteed employment. But we also need to rethink how resources and tasks are spread through a variable-length career so that people at every stage are making contributions that they are well qualified for, and extending the endpoint doesn’t block the entry of new young academics. Rules that constrain people based on their calendar age are demeaning, and very imperfectly approximate the path of individual abilities, needs, and contributions. Their only advantage is that they allow us to ignore individual ageing, and permit each person to pretend they went out at the top of their game, and could have kept going forever if it weren’t for this inflexible, impersonal rule.

I spoke in favour of abolishing the EJRA, the first time that I have addressed such a gathering. These were my remarks:

To impose a mandatory retirement age upon academicemployees is wrong. It is practically wrong and it is ethically wrong. It contravenes the spirit — and quite likely the letter — of the landmark Equality Act of 2010, affirming as it did the autonomy of individuals to shape their own lives, regardless of stereotypes associated to superficial characteristics. This proposal feeds on and further nourishes invidious stereotypes of the old and of the young.

Such a scheme is not worthy of this institution.

I am a statistician, and my research concerns itself, in part, with analysis of ageing and the life-course. The main principle I have learned is: variation. There is no standard career, no standard path to ageing. Not all late-60s academics have been in post for four decades, have used up their limited stock of inspiration, or are winding down their life’s work. Some have barely begun, after another career or time spent raising children. Some are eager to be relieved of duties, others eager to mentor younger colleagues. Some will pursue their late scholarship with pen and paper in a quiet corner. Others need million-pound grants and world-class facilities. To tie retirement to a fixed calendar age, rather than life stage, career progression, and individual ambition is to scorn this variation.

An academic career is rewarding, and it is demanding. Universities would not function with time-serving clock-punching employees. But you cannot expect a full life commitment, and then insist that that commitment wind down on a fixed schedule.

The lack of posts for young scholars is a grave problem today, as it was already when I finished my doctorate 20 years ago. But while Oxford can maintain its own tutorial system, and its own dining system, Oxford cannot maintain its own academic job market. Whether there are 5% more or less openings — or some say 10% — in Oxford in the next decade will not define the career chances of a generation of young scholars seeking posts across Britain and across the world. This is not going to change the push toward casualisation of the academic workforce, short-term contracts, the weakening of tenure and academic freedom.

It is not the senior academics who have disappointed us with dwindling creativity. It is the senior administrators and academic governors, in all of our universities, who have been hired for their supposed vision and expertise in organisational management and finance and law, who have failed. We need fresh thinking about how the available time, space, and money, that flow through our institutions, in an ethical and inclusive way, to support the aspirations of young and old scholars alike. What we have been offered are lazy modifications of the old regime, a zero-sum struggle of group against group, lazily recapitulating old inequities and creating new ones. The work we have is too large to force idleness on those who would like to contribute.

The real limitation is not work, but resources. We need to stop the ratchet that accumulates ever more power and resources in the hands of senior colleagues on the basis of long service. We need to recycle the resources from those who need less — or are less capable — to those who need more, while still respecting individuals’ autonomy in shaping the time course of their scholarship. Let us have an honest discussion about salary structure and grant income, about mentoring and power relations in departments, and about how we decide whether someone is actually doing the job he or she agreed to do — recognising that the occasional offenders are not concentrated in any one demographic group.

Anti-discrimination law strips away from us the facile solution of fixed retirement age. We are not permitted to remedy one injustice by creating another injustice. We should seize the opportunity to address the hard questions boldly, and with sincerity.

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