Canadian Journal of Sociology Online November-December 2005

Is Mandatory Retirement Bad For Sociology? Comments on MacGregor and Klassen [*]

Neil McLaughlin

David MacGregor and Tom Klassen have written a thoughtful and useful intervention on an important policy issue: the question of mandatory retirement. They have, furthermore, challenged academics in general and sociologists, in particular, to reflect on the implications of all this for universities and the state of higher education in Canada. I agree with their core argument on the human rights implications of mandatory retirement. In addition, they have added an important dimension to thinking about the present state of Canadian sociology that Curtis/Weir and I neglected in our recent essays on the discipline. The age structure of disciplines is an important factor to consider as we think about the health of sociology, and this is shaped by broader social policies that differ across nations, states and provinces. MacGregor and Klassen provide an important corrective to "Canada's Impossible Science." I do, however, disagree with some of the ways they have framed the question, and want to raise some concerns about the conclusions they draw.

We agree on a fair amount. The case that MacGregor and Klassen have been making for ending forced retirement at 65 strikes me as compelling, even though, I hasten to add, I have no expertise in labour market and social policy matters. They both should be commended for the range of knowledge, insight and data they have gathered, for their attention to details as to how this all works in different provinces and in the United States, and for the moral and intellectual force of the argument. Moreover, they are right that there are aspects of the Weir/Curtis essay on "the succession question in Canadian Sociology" that can be read as contributing to a discourse that marginalizes the contributions of some of the senior members of our profession. This is true, even though overall, the Weir and Curtis essay is a commendable effort to speak to young sociologists in Canada and mobilize their energies for the benefit of the discipline as a whole. I do not think it is fair, however, to say, as MacGregor and Klassen do, that Weir and Curtis "denigrate the quality of older professors," although they could have dealt with the complexities of all this in a more detail. In particular, it is important not to overemphasize the credentials of young potential hires in our departments as if they are all more qualified than the senior faculty doing the hiring, especially with regards to teaching and administrative experience but also with regards to publishing.

MacGregor and Klassen are insightful, furthermore, when suggesting that my CJS essay on Canadian sociology missed the structural importance of the different mandatory retirement legislation in Canada and the United States as a factor that shapes academic life in important ways. There is no question, in particular, that having mandatory retirement in some provincial jurisdictions in Canada complicates efforts in Canadian universities to recruit and retain first class scholars, something worth considering as we debate the policy. Most importantly, however, the issue of mandatory requirement involves human rights questions, particularly with regards to scholars, often women, who start their career late in life and are forced to retire as their careers are just getting going. The broad and universal elimination of mandatory requirement policies in Canada ultimately does sound the best policy option available.

At the same time, there are at least three problems with the argument MacGregor and Klassen outline. First, they are guilty of rhetorical over-kill at times, claiming we are iin danger of seeing a "great purge" and a "human rights disaster." It is easy, of course, to dismiss or deny injustices, sacrifices, and the status/financial loses suffered by others. MacGregor and Klassen certainly bring the human dimension of this issue vividly to our attention. Nonetheless, the image of a Stalinist "great purge" is a gross exaggeration, and does not move the debate forward in productive ways.

Rhetorical excesses on one side of a debate can easily give rise to further polarization. This is illustrated clearly by the metaphor some of their opponents on this issue could use if they were to play the same game. One could easily imagine a hypothetical essay by a proponent of the interests of the thousands of part time and non-tenure track young and not so young faculty across Ontario and Canada, raising concerns about the relative advantage of the most senior tenured faculty in our universities now reaching retirement age. Some would suggest the moral value of making room for new faculty appointments in place of many highly paid scholars who have had long careers and will often be receiving excellent pensions after the horrors of the "purge." Some of the more militant defenders of the interests of sessional lectures might even raise the issue of what could be called "academic apartheid," as universities are increasingly divided into reasonably well paid and treated tenured faculty alongside increasingly exploited contingent labour. How should society choose between a "great purge" or "academic apartheid" if that is the way the issues are framed? There are options worth discussing that could address the needs of both young and old in our universities. And let us be clear — the situation of near to retirement age tenured faculty in Canada and under-employed recent PhDs are both serious matters, but neither represents a case of a "great purge" or "academic apartheid." Real purges and real apartheid involved killings, torture, violence, suffering and injustices that go far beyond what is happening today to our tenured and job-seeking PhDs in Canada. The rhetoric MacGregor and Klassen use sometimes slips into simplistic moralism, exaggerations and unneeded polarization. This type of rhetoric should be challenged before it spreads.

The problem here is that MacGregor and Klassen are not ultimately willing to give enough weight or serious consideration to the argument for mandatory requirement. This is understandable given their mobilizing political efforts and the "race against the clock" faced by some critics of the "out at 65" regulations. Nonetheless, the arguments made in support of mandatory retirement by large elements of the Canadian union movement, for example, are not unreasonable and are worth consideration. It is true, of course, that the policy affects more than university professors but it is also the case that high paying, high status, safe and rewarding jobs like university professors are occupations where people often do want to keep working well into their 60s. The ability and the right of workers to retire when they want with a strong pension is, and should be, a higher priority for the society than this essay suggests. The University of Toronto arrangement with their faculty will do little to ensure this broader social need. Americans do not have mandatory retirement largely, in my view, because of their more exclusively rights-based political culture, but they also have weaker unions, a less developed welfare state and, as we recently saw, a remarkable ability to ignore the plight of their own poor. Complicated issues, to be sure, and we should be able to debate them without proponents of mandatory retirement being dismissed as the defenders of human rights abuses equivalent to blatant sexism and racism. Age discrimination against a 51 or 55 year-old faculty candidate for a tenure stream job in Canada is morally as well as legally unacceptable. But is that the same thing as debating the very complicated questions that arise when talking about tenured professors at age 65 and the trade-offs of "new blood" versus "experience" in university research and teaching? Moreover, questions of intergenerational equality are particularly important with regards to a relatively limited number of faculty positions that are, let us remember, based on life-long appointments that are far more secure than almost any other occupation. It is wrong, to be sure, to over-generialize by suggesting that older Canadian sociology faculty are not active professionally because many of them most certainly publish books, articles and are active as public sociologists. And at our more teaching oriented institutions, teaching experience and wisdom certainly must be given weight as we reflect on these questions.

Nonetheless, we should remember that the reward structure and culture of our research universities, in particular, are set up with the assumption of mandatory retirement in place. Given this reality, is it not reasonable for the public as well as younger professionals without full-time tenure stream jobs to have serious concerns about the fairness of situations that do exist where some faculty have stopped publishing regularly but whose teaching load and wages are set with an assumption of time consuming research productivity? I would prefer that faculty, not administrators, police this alongside union protection for individuals, with the goal of helping stalled scholars return to productivity or possibly substituting a teaching option for those who attained tenure as productive scholars but then ran out of research steam (this is a complex issue, that administrators will exploit!). This is a little utopian, of course, given the increasingly lean and mean administrations we live with in higher education today. Because of this context, we need to tread carefully with any new institutional reforms. Within Canadian universities, the elimination of mandatory retirements might lead to questionable post-tenure review processes, led by "cost-cutting" deans, provosts and presidents, not by human rights-oriented and principled scholars. Tenure is a very important protection for the ability of future generations of scholars to pursue knowledge in ways not dictated purely by states, markets or the public. It is not fair to ask tenured faculty to leave their jobs at age 65, but the question cannot be discussed without serious attention to the realities of tenure and the need for intergenerational solidarity — the "great purge" metaphor gets in the way of addressing these issues. Ultimately, the case for eliminating mandatory retirements seem valid and worth the risks, but it is one that involves serious trade-offs and is not the good versus evil story suggested in elements of the MacGregor and Klassen essay.

Finally, I do not find compelling their argument that mandatory retirement hurts Canadian sociology. We should argue for eliminating mandatory retirement based on broad human rights considerations, not on basis of whether this is "good for sociology." In fact, while there are many very serious scholars, teachers, university citizens and researchers who would be lost to the discipline if they were forced to retire, it is my general sense that the level of professionalism and scholarly ability of the next generation of Canadian sociologists to be hired will more than make up for these losses. The issue of whether we actually hire the young sociologists we are training is a separate one, and I do worry that the interdisciplinary fad running through our universities will lead Canadian sociologists to hire scholars into tenure track positions without PhDs in the discipline they will be teaching, in far larger numbers than political scientists, economists, literary scholars or historians will be doing. If we lose many committed older sociologists, and replace them with dozens of young scholars with no commitment to sociology as an autonomous intellectual discipline, the project of sociology will indeed suffer as MacGregor and Klassen suggest. This is a serious internal matter for sociologists to debate and discuss, but mandatory retirement will not, overall, have all that much effect on the larger fate of sociology as a discipline. And the issue may play the other way, leading to an overall improvement in the discipline, as the generation of scholars partly responsible for the institutional problems that may lead to a "coming crisis in Anglo-Canadian sociology" make way for younger sociologists with new and perhaps better ideas for the future of our discipline. The important issues at stake, in any case, are broader societal questions of intergenerational equality, fairness to those over 60, and the trade-offs between human and general workers rights. Making the case for or against mandatory retirement based on how it will affect sociology risks trivializing larger questions of far greater importance.

In addition, while I will yield to no one (with the possible exception of Bob Brym!) as a critic of the CSAA, I fail to see the point MacGregor and Klassen are making in terms of the alleged unwillingness of Canadian sociologists to take a stand on these issues. We have debated the issues at the recent Congress meetings in London and here in this exchange, and my sense is that many sociologists have views on this question and quite a few have become politically active. Moreover, MacGregor and Klassen do not really engage the expert knowledge we have in sociology in Canada on these and related questions. There is a long tradition of Canadian scholars studying pensions and retirement issues, as John Myles's classic book Old Age in the Welfare State: The Political Economy of Public Pensions (1984) reminds us. Furthermore, questions of age discrimination have hardly been ignored in Canadian sociology, as anyone familiar with the work done at University of Victoria, McMaster, Alberta or University of Western Ontario, to take just four examples that come to mind, would know. Related debates are happening in our departments and journals and should continue. The normative issues are important and more research could be done, but the association should not prejudge the question in advance nor take a position on a political question where there is no consensus.

With these concerns expressed, however, MacGregor and Klassen are to be congratulated for writing such a thoughtful and powerful polemic, an excellent contribution to the tradition of debate that has emerged in the Canadian Journal of Sociology Online over these past few years. They are compelling on the big questions and have contributed insights to a sociology of sociology. And certainly their argument deserve serious consideration even if sociologists are likely to remain more divided, ambivalent and conflicted on the issue than they would like to see.

* The author would like to thank Karen Kusch, Linda Quirke, Kerry Turcotte, Tony Puddephatt, David Hitchcock, John Myles, Kyle Siler and Scott Davies for detailed comments on an earlier draft of this response. None of these individuals, of course, is responsible for my views on these matters, but all helped me to formulate my views on questions on which I am clearly not an expert. [back to text]

Neil McLaughlin

Sociology, McMaster University

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November 2005
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http://www.cjsonline.ca/soceye/mclaughlinretirement.html November 2005 Canadian Journal of Sociology Online