Older Academics: A question of equity and age:

A black and white portrait of Albert Einstein.The university sector has an ageing workforce. But are older academics encouraged to stay on, and if so, are they treated with equity? This is an important question in the context of a higher education institutions in a competitive global market.

A qualitative study of older academics revealed that older academics are not treated equitably by management. There is an emphasis on “performance” but no investment in it. The main human resource strategy for older academics seems to be pre-retirement planning. So there are two issues: performance evaluation and age management.

The study was carried out by Catherine Earl, Philip Taylor and Fabian Cannizzo who discuss the role of corporate objectives in the employment of older academics. They conclude that the ad hoc nature of retirement planning has perpetuated stereotypes of older academics. It puts pressure on individuals to avoid discrimination by making sure they “perform” well. Both the institutions and the academics are vulnerable in this global climate and an equitable solution needs to be found.

The title of the paper is, “Regardless of Age”: Australian University Managers’ Attitudes and Practices Towards Older Academics

Abstract: As with other industrialized nations Australia’s population is aging and older workers are encouraged to work for longer. At the same time, Australia’s university sector, which is aging, is being reconfigured through changes that potentially marginalize its older workers as higher education institutions try to become more competitive in a global market. In this context, youthfulness appears to embody competitiveness and academic institutions are increasingly aspiring to a young workforce profile. This qualitative article builds on previous research to explore to what extent ageist assumptions shape attitudes to older workers and human resource management (HRM) practices within Australian universities even when HRM practitioners are well versed in antidiscrimination legislation that (unlike the Age Discrimination in Employment Act in the United States) applies to workers of all ages. Semistructured interviews conducted with 22 HRM practitioners in Australian universities reveal that university HRM practices generally overlook the value of retaining an older workforce by conflating “potential” with “youthfulness,” assuming that staff potential and performance share a negative correlation with age. While mostly lower-ranked institutions have attempted to retain older academics to maintain an adequate labor supply, this study finds that university policies targeting the ongoing utilization of older workers generally are underdeveloped. Consequently, the availability of late career employment arrangements is dependent upon institutions’ strategic goals, with favorable ad hoc solutions offered to academics with outstanding performance records, while a rhetoric of performance decline threatens to marginalize older academic researchers and teachers more generally.

Editor’s note: Professor Philip Taylor is a CUDA board member.