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Faculty postpone retirement across Canada

Economy’s slide and end of mandatory retirement see more profs staying on


Professor Robert Adamec, age 64, does not plan to retire next year but is “pretty sure” he will be ready to go at 69. And the ball is in his court. With the elimination of mandatory retirement in most parts of Canada now, the rules of the game have changed to allow employees to decide for themselves whether they’re ready to enter the golden years.

“People in my generation, the boomers, have changed the face of aging. Sixty is the new forty. Many people who are moving into their 60s are far more energetic and less debilitated than people used to be at that age,” he says.

Dr. Adamec of Memorial University represents a mindset that has taken hold at many universities across Canada, where it appears that a third to a half of faculty members are choosing to work beyond age 65. The downward economic spiral is expected to reinforce the trend.

University administrators are quick to point to the value of having seasoned scholars and teachers in the faculty ranks. But the phenomenon of delayed retirement is creating serious challenges for administrators whose mandate is to manage costs at a time of severe budget tightening while also bringing about faculty renewal to improve research competitiveness and achieve diversity targets.

Since mandatory retirement ended at Memorial in 2006, the faculty of arts has seen just 12 professors give up their positions at 65, even though in 2006 alone, about 35 professors – 20 percent of the faculty – turned 65. Dean Reeta Tremblay has moved ahead with hiring to meet her top priority of faculty renewal but she says this won’t be viable in the long term, given the large number of delayed retirements.

“In 2006, I hired about 37 new faculty members,” she says “but this is really living beyond our means.”

Country-wide figures aren’t available for how many faculty are staying past age 65. But every university contacted for this article is experiencing the phenomenon of delayed retirements. At the University of Western Ontario, in 2007 and 2008 just six professors retired each year out of an estimated annual cohort of 30 to 40 who turned 65. On the other hand, in each of those years, 10 to 13 professors took early retirement.

Alan Weedon, vice-provost (faculty, planning and policy) at Western, says that “roughly half” of professors reach 65 and choose to stay on as active employees, and “roughly half had already retired at some point in the previous 10 years.” He projects that within three years, about 100 faculty members will be older than 65 out of a total cohort of about 1,000.

Because universities pay higher salaries to their most senior faculty members, the trend to delayed retirement hampers university plans to hire more professors, including women and visible minorities, say administrators.

In Western’s case, the expected growth in the cohort staying past age 65 translates into a loss of about 40 positions over the next few years, estimates Dr. Weedon. He says this will slow down the university’s attempts to increase the number of women professors, at least over the next five years.

More take early retirement

Meanwhile, the University of British Columbia is experiencing two very different trends at once: Twice as many faculty are taking early retirement as did in the era of mandatory retirement. Yet 80 percent of those who are still working at age 65 have elected to stay on. When the trends are combined, about one-third of professors are delaying retirement, says Fran Watters, director of faculty relations.

“Absolutely, this is a concern, and it will get worse before it gets better because of the recent financial crunch,” says Ms. Watters. “This has a dampening impact on faculty renewal, with negative consequences for postdoctoral fellows and graduate students who are on the brink of starting their academic careers and find there are just not as many opportunities as there were three years ago.”

She says “only a handful” of faculty members are taking advantage of new options put in place in 2007 to ease the transition into retirement, including scaled back work hours or reduced commitments in either teaching or research.

With just a few years’ experience to draw on, universities are reluctant to draw conclusions about how many faculty will stay past 65 and for how long. Based on the experience of the United States and Quebec, where mandatory retirement hasn’t existed for many years, the expectation is for about 35 per cent of faculty to remain past 65 and for most of those to retire by age 68 or 69. In Quebec, the average retirement age is 62.5 years, according to the Canadian Association of University Business Officers (or CAUBO).

James Turk, executive director of the Canadian Association of University Teachers, says in jurisdictions that banned mandatory retirement, it’s not unusual to see the normal retirement age “bump up at first and then dribble off again” with no substantial or long-term change in the average age of retirement. But, he adds, the current economic climate has people scared, particularly those with a defined-contribution pension plan, where the size of an employee’s pension is tied closely to stock market performance.

“In those situations, there will be a much higher number of people who want to stay on,” he predicts. (Western and UBC have defined-contribution pension plans while Memorial has a defined benefit plan.)

Ken Snowdon, an Ontario consultant to university administrations, agrees. “The current environment makes it somewhat more difficult for people to get a handle on their personal situations and so I expect there will be a tendency for people to stay on to get a better bellwether on the financial side.”

This may hold true especially for women, many of whom delayed or interrupted their careers to focus on family and may not have accumulated enough years of service to ensure an adequate pension.

Meanwhile, CAUBO did a status report on retirement trends among faculty more than a year ago, after the mandatory retirement clause was lifted in several provinces. It found that the major factor in faculty decision-making on how long to work is whether the pension plan provides for a continuation of benefits – such as dental, vision and supplementary health – after retirement. That factor held true for early-retirement decisions, as well, in provinces that still have mandatory retirement (mainly in the Maritimes).

Universities that are young or have experienced big growth spurts appear less worried about delayed retirements. The University of Saskatchewan and the University of Windsor both have hired a large proportion of their faculty in the past decade – half in the case of U of S and two thirds for Windsor. Brett Fairbairn, provost and vice-president academic at U of S, says that with a relatively young professoriate, “having some well-established and experienced senior professors continuing on is not necessarily bad and potentially even a good thing.”

Neil Gold, provost and vice-president academic, at the University of Windsor, agrees: “We have a fairly young faculty so we’re personally not keen to see people leave too quickly because we need some experience and to keep a good mix.”

It wasn’t long ago that universities were expressing fear about whether they were going to be able to recruit enough new faculty once the baby boom generation hit retirement age. That hasn’t changed, says Mr. Snowdon. “On the demand side there is still the need for more faculty. But on the financial side the reality is that it’s going to be very difficult for institutions to be doing much new hiring.”

Some argue there’s a moral obligation for older faculty to make way for new, but clearly it’s not that simple. Professor Adamec, who’s staying on at Memorial, says he remembers what it was like to apply for faculty jobs in a competitive environment. “I know exactly how they feel,” he says of the recent PhDs. “But I also now know how people going out the other end feel. So there has to be a balancing of considerations.”

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  1. David A. MITCHELL / November 22, 2009 at 23:06

    I am 79 years old and still working full time at Dawson College Westmount. Because of a “Canadian Income Tax Law” (they tell me) I am no longer in the Pension scheme and yet, although I have taught for 36 years, only 26 of these are counted, which means I get 52% of my 1999 salary and not 70% of my present salary as a pension as do all the younger teachers around me. People make cruel jokes about my ‘working for nothing’. I have a serious cardiac problem and cannot retire. I have a spouse, who will receive next to nothing upon my death.

  2. John Archer / March 4, 2010 at 08:32

    None of our graduate students can find academic jobs these days. First it was temp lecturers, then hiring freezes and no professors that linger on well past their prime.

    Let’s not eat our young! Let’s give them the same chances that we had. Don’t be selfish.

  3. Dr.Doinglittle / March 4, 2010 at 12:29

    Faculty aren’t retiring also because they are at the top of their pay scale once they reach retirement age. Why retire when you can earn ~$100G a year for light teachign duties. Older profs can also decline grad students by citing their closeness to retirement.

    It’s an all round bad situation. Universities are paying more to keep on profs long past their best-before date and denying recent graduates any chances of finding employment. Stuents also lose out since they being taught by profs educated in the 1960s and 70s rather than the younger generation.

  4. SChakrabarti / April 22, 2010 at 16:39

    The title should have said “About one third of Faculty postpone retirement……” or something like that. There is a pervasive negativity in Career related forums and news items and incomplete reporting highlighting the negative (and ignoring the positive) only makes it worse.

  5. S Noble. / January 23, 2013 at 15:55

    As a Ph.D. graduate (2006), I’ve been looking for academic work through to today. Over the years I’ve applied to over 150 open tenure track positions and not received even an interview. Typically, there were more than 100 applicants per position. I’ve even started applying to colleges and still the same thing. One college has seen over 45 of my applications for the same number of active openings. Nothing. What lies before the Ph.D. glut Canada is experiencing are:

    Boomers not retiring

    Part-time/Contract positions (up to 80% of teaching in universities today)

    Post docs now becoming one’s career

    Graduate schools continually puppy milling out Ph.D.s with little concern as to their future

    So, I, like thousands of other Ph.D.s have given up on post secondary teaching. I suspect the Ph.D.s with stalled careers far outnumber the greedy Boomer old profs who won’t let go of their cozy minimal work, bloated salary positions.

    This is a story about greed. Pure and simple.