I have occasionally noted that we have structural problems in academic science that are caused in large part by the behavior of one generation of scientists. This has created a suppression of the productivity and aspirations of GenX scientists whereby we will never live up to our scientific potential.

It is unclear whether these impacts will continue to trickle down on millennial scientists and beyond but a certain segment of the rapidly emeritizing population is trying to make up for what it has done to Gen X. And by “make up for” I mean they are skipping right over Gen X, the generation of scientists who they most affected, to cry crocodile tears and wring hands about the youngsters these days.

There’s a new version of this posted by one Richard C. Larson in Science. It’s interesting because it ties into an ongoing and very real phenomenon.

There have been numerous cases over the past ~8 years of a certain trend. It is the rumor or plain statement that Professor Smith is “planning to retire”. Or perhaps merely thinking about retiring. Usually this is coupled to a low ebb of grant funding for Professor Smith compared to the salad days. Perhaps a long interval of failure to get grants funded is referenced or perhaps not but the overall picture is clear.
1) Professor Smith can retire. Whatever this person has going on in the personal life, retirement is financially possible as a choice.
2) Professor Smith is inevitably at or past traditional ages of retirement (i.e., mid 60s).
3) Professor Smith is very tired of the grant game and particularly the current necessity to submit many, many grants. (Whether or not he or she has been working as hard as the rest of us always have is immaterial, btw)

Then…..drum roll….

Anther grant hits. And Professor Smith takes it for another sweet 5 years of funding.

What is optional at this point in the distribution is whether said Professors Smith have any intention of really returning to full PI work. I imagine some do. Some, I assert, really just can’t figure out how to retire. They like to be PI. They like to be employed and they LOOOOOVE to be able to still junket around the world to meetings. They expect to be living out their final days with some highly productive trainees pumping out papers with relatively little input from Professor Smith.

At this point, as always, someone is thinking I have a very specific Professor Smith in mind. I do not. That is how common this character has become. Every colleague I know, at far flung universities, seems to know this character.

Professor Larson asks “What are you waiting for?

When I was hired as an assistant professor in 1969, mandatory retirement at age 65 was the law of the land for tenured faculty members. I was 26 years old at the time…by the time I was 50…federal law had removed all age limits. I could stay in my tenured position forever! That’s how, in 2011, I found myself still an active professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in Cambridge at age 68.

Typical set up.

how eliminating mandatory retirement had affected the availability of positions for new assistant professors. The question struck me as important but not personally relevant—until my colleagues and I got our results.

Our initial intuition was that there would be no substantial long-term effect. We expected to find that the number of open positions dipped just after the law’s two changes. After all, the number of available tenure-track faculty slots is essentially fixed—at MIT, there are approximately 1000. To create room for a new faculty member, an existing one has to leave. But after a brief dip, we thought, retirements should return to normal, creating room for new recruits.

How convenient. Magical thinking to justify their selfish behavior. How can retirement return to “normal” if there is no more retirement and health care continues to extend life?

we discovered that eliminating the retirement age had reduced the number of new slots for MIT assistant professors by 19%, from 57 to 46 per year. Put simply, without a mandatory retirement age, senior faculty members are much slower to leave.

Who could have ever predicted that they would not leave at all, ever, until they literally died?

I had hired a postdoc …he worried that, like many postdocs, he might not be able to get the tenure-track position he sought. There are simply too many applicants seeking too few positions. And I began to realize that I and other professors older than 65 were blocking the way of many young scholars who seek academic careers.

Really. You “began to realize” only because your dude was having trouble.

(In the meantime, [postdoc] secured that tenure-track position and is now an associate professor with tenure.)

Oh look. “no harm no foul” right? The really “superlative young scholar” postdocs were okay! …this guy. smh.

Once “professor, post-tenure” was announced in 2016, I found it increasingly attractive. It wasn’t the same as “emeritus”—not full retirement. I could retain my office, teach and supervise students, and be a principal investigator on research grants—all with great flexibility. I would get to choose which projects I wanted to do and be paid accordingly, up to 49% of my previous salary.

Need we mention that this half of previous salary is a whole assistant professor salary? Or perhaps a nice little chunk of bridge funding for the struggling associate professor? I mean…dude!

At 74, I in essence removed 9 years from someone else’s career. I should have stepped aside sooner.

Holy crap. 74? and you are still on half time? which, btw, doesn’t “remove 9 years”. IT PREVENTS AN ENTIRE CAREER from ever happening.

What are you waiting for, Professor, Post-tenure Larson?