Regular followers of my Facebook page know that for a number of months now I’ve been soliciting a post on aging and age discrimination in academia.
I’ve been seeking such a post because of the constant stream of requests I receive from readers to deal with this topic.
I have not felt qualified to write about it directly, because although I am 47 now, my formal academic career path took place when I was much younger, and in terms of age, I followed a very standard “approved” trajectory: Ph.D. in early 30s, first tenure track job immediately following, tenure before 40, second, “better” job immediately following, foray into administration in early 40s.
When you begin your scholarly career in your 20s or 30s, and pursue an active research and publishing trajectory with tenure, age discrimination, in many important ways, does not come into play for a very long time. In this, academia is different from other areas of the economy. That is not to say that older people, and older women in particular, are not judged, dismissed, or excluded in the academy as well, even when they have tenure. They absolutely are. Particularly in local, institutional politics, and the ranks of the administration, where men still predominate, and the upper ranks are absolutely filled with white-haired males, women are marginalized. Older female professors may well be relegated to the less-desirable teaching assignments, and ignored or dismissed in faculty meetings. No doubt.
But, in our scholarly “fields,” we are defined as “productive” to the extent that we research and publish, and research and publishing are generally judged on merit of the work, without a great deal of attention to the age of the person publishing. Age matters if the work itself is perceived as being old fashioned or out of date, but advancing age is not in and of itself the cause of old fashioned or out of date work. An aging professor who maintains a lively and dynamic research trajectory is likely to enjoy a relatively stable reputation in his or her field for many decades. Because of this, the tenured professor is to some degree protected from the virulent age discrimination that affects workers in other industries.
This is indeed a nice thing about the academy *for those who occupy privileged positions of tenure within it.*
But for those who are just finishing their Ph.D.s or who are struggling on the job market, or enduring year after year of adjuncting, at an age beyond the “approved” trajectory, ageism and the pressures of age are real and urgent indeed.
While I am very interested in the stories from the tenure track and tenured about the role of age and agism in their careers, I am more concerned about the fate of the untenured and non-tenure-track. My work as The Professor has revealed to me the exponentially higher stakes for them of the failures of Ph.D. programs to adequately and responsibly advise Ph.D. students to understand the job market and lay the groundwork for actual paying work.
The fact is, finishing a Ph.D. and realizing that your graduate program has completely failed you in terms of job preparation is one thing when you are 30, and something entirely different when you are 50.
I see this truth every day in my work.
It is stark, and painful.
Far, far too many older students, women in particular, make their way into Ph.D. programs later in life, finish in their late 40s and 50s, and are now, because of the disintegration of the academic job market, staring down the barrel of unemployment, massive lost wages, sunk costs, and devastating debt, all against the backdrop of looming old age.
When I made my latest call on Facebook for a guest post on being an older woman in academia, a former student wrote an email to respond. Here is what she said:
“I just wanted to follow-up on a post you had about older women in the academy. It really didn’t sit well with me–probably because I am in my mid-40s and not yet secured a full-time position. At the same time, I have been super successful and confident–but must admit recently seeing a dermatologist over an age spot!“So, I am worried. But, also something I couldn’t place bothered me about your post–and that you positioned yourself as an older woman (which, you are not!).“I read Ashley Judd’s recent post about all this speculation about her aging–and it hit home. It really is about patriarchy and all the other BS that infuses our culture.“Are we not perpetuating this by locating ourselves as older? Or even playing into this as if it really mattered?! I have more to say now than in my 30s, and I should absolutely not be worrying about my age– though I do. But isn’t it up to us to dismantle these forms of oppression?”
I responded to her:
“Thanks for these thoughtful reactions, XXXX. The thing is, in my work I deal with a population of self-defined, quote-unquote “older women” (generally in their late 40s and 50s) who have ended up in painfully dead end adjuncting situations, or unemployed, without a f-ing clue about how to get out… And they ask, over and over, what kind of age discrimination can I expect? How much is my age going to count against me?“And the fact is, it will count against them. Maybe not as much as the corporate world, but if you’re a brand new Ph.D who is 50, you’re going to have to go an extra mile to prove that you’re worth hiring over the 30 year old. And because my own arc was the classic “approved” arc of starting in my 20s, finishing quickly, getting a tt job right away, and progressing smoothly through tenure….I never encountered any age-related obstacles in my career path. But others who deviate from this approved path absolutely do.Adjuncting is the destroyer of so many peoples’ dreams…or not adjuncting per se, but the PhD process, the sunk costs, the debt, and then not having secure employment at the end of it, and being 55 instead of 35…. I want the blog to be a clearinghouse of honest info about that—from people who have been there!”
My former student is absolutely correct—discrimination against older women is all about patriarchy. But that doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist. As faithful readers know, The Professor Is In is dedicated to exposing the brutal truths of the academy to empower its most vulnerable inhabitants, and does not engage in wishful thinking about what could or should be better.
And I want to know just how this works. What happens to older people, particularly older women (however you define older), in graduate school, off the tenure track, on the job market? We need to know.
Here is the one thing I do know, with a great deal of certainty: academia is a kind of cult, or cult-like environment. It is a closed and insular system with massive barriers to entry. The Ph.D. process is the indoctrination process that over many years inculcates practitioners into the correct values and norms of the closed group. The end product is successful to the extent that they have thoroughly accepted these values and norms, and made them into their own operating principles.
What I have observed in my work with clients is that older students are more resistant to the indoctrination process than younger students. Their identities are more fully formed, and they have more years of previous values and habits that have to be displaced to make room for the new ones. The process of indoctrination of older students is more likely to be incomplete and tentative. And that has serious consequences for the older Ph.D. as end product of the system.
What I have found in my work with older Ph.D.s is that, despite their equal length of time in their programs, they frequently miss the core elements of indoctrination that are absorbed by their younger colleagues. With a depressing regularity, my older clients seem to leave their Ph.D.s with a significant deficit of knowledge about the unspoken norms, judgments, practices, and status operations of the academic environment. Older clients, at a much greater rate than younger ones, miss the messages about attending the highest status program possible, networking intensively at conferences, publishing while still in graduate school, and competing for jobs at the highest, ‘Olympic” level of intensity.
Some of this is undoubtedly logistical—older students with children, for example, will not be as free to attend the after hour talks, the happy hours at the bar, the conferences, and so on, where much of the socialization of Ph.D.s takes place. Some of this is, for lack of a better word, attitudinal—older students may be coming from successful previous careers, and are perhaps more skeptical of the status hierarchy embedded and manifested in all Ph.D. training environments. Some of it may be longitudinal–many of my older clients tell me that they viewed academia as a step AWAY from the “rat race” of a stressful career, not realizing that its requirements are just as intense and stressful. Many mid-life Ph.D.s imagine the arts or humanities Ph.D. as a grand Oprah-esque adventure in self-actualization and liberation, not understanding that it is actually an exercise in conformity as rigid as any corporate environment. And some of it may be physiological. I know, as a 47-year-old starting a new business, that I had nothing like the ferocious, unstoppable energy that I had in my 20s starting out in the academic profession. Back then I could live on no sleep, and no expenditure of energy was too great. Not so now. I have to ration my energy now, and use it carefully. But the productivity level required of the tenure-track job search is not compatible with any kind of slowing down.
I realize that these observations may appear to be a case of ‘blaming the victim,’ as if I’m saying that older Ph.D.s are somehow less deserving of positions because of their different path through graduate school experience. That is not what I’m saying. What I see are a constellation of circumstances whose end result is that the distintegrating job market and indifferent and inadequate Ph.D. training apparatus, which are destructive for all, are particularly destructive for older Ph.D.s. Because, the fact is, the margin for deviation from the norm, and for ‘variation’ of any kind, is evaporating. Just as the college degree is increasingly returning to the exclusive privilege of the wealthy, so the academic career is increasingly becoming the exclusive province of the young and strong. And that is to its ultimate detriment.
Please share your thoughts.