I once wrote a really whiny post. No, not that one. No…not that other one. Nope, not that either. No… sigh.

Okay, it was the one where I was whinging about Generation X never, ever reaching their true potential as a scientific generation in the US. Apparently I wrote that 5 years ago. One whole NIH R01 grant cycle ago. In 2011 when there was some hope brewing that we were coming out of the Great Bush Recession.

Welp. Thanks to COVID-19 it looks like we have more Recession type times ahead. And right on cue we are seeing various versions of those who are retired, and those who should be retiring, complaining about the stock market and what a hardship it is for them. My parents, as it happens, are in the first category. They are not by any means in any hardship for their retirement because of this, btw. Any part of their living money that is going to go down because of this Recession is only a part of what they live on. My academic parent secured a tenure track job back when they were accompanied with real, defined benefit pension deals. Generous ones by modern standards, where they even exist.

Also, they are actually pre-Boomer and the offspring of the Depression, which means that they don’t even like to spend money on themselves anyway. So they are fine.

In this week’s Boomer Digest, a Professor and ex-Dean at MIT has written an Op-Ed that I think is intended to be helpful. A Professor Fitzgerald writes in the Chronicle of Higher Education that:

We senior scholars need to get out of the way, graciously and with dignity. A great deal of the power, glory, and heart of our departments and universities is there because of our work, but we need to recognize when it is time to pass that on to the next generation.

But along the way to this conclusion she reminds us that the Boomers got their jobs at a time when a prior generation was subject to mandatory age-related retirement.

Congress had just amended the age-discrimination law in 1986 to prohibit mandatory retirement when I started my academic career. Higher education was exempt, however, and institutions could still force professors to retire at 70. Yet at that point of my career, nothing could have been further from my mind than my own retirement plan.

LOL, “age-discrimination law” is a bit of a reveal. Ahem. Note that it was 70 instead of 65 or 68 like I seem to remember for other jobs….but still. Wait, hang on…the gravy train continued for a few more years?

As a young scholar, I believed that academics died with our boots on. One of the great things about being part of a “thinking” profession was that, barring illness or death, thinking would never end. My research and teaching would just get better with time, and my students and colleagues would value my wisdom and experience. I continued to believe that in 1993, when higher education’s exemption expired and professors could no longer be forced out at 70.

Let me do the math here. 48. The first of the Boomers were 48 years of age when mandatory retirement for those above them was ended. In 1979, the earliest Bridges to Independence includes, the age of first assistant professorship in US medical schools was 34 (Fig. 2-4a). As we know from Advancing the Nation’s Health Needs: NIH Research Training Programs (Figure 9-2), it was around 1979 before even 50% of PhDs in biomed were in postdocs for 1-2 years and 3-4 year postdoc stints were less than half as common. Round about 1973 when that graph starts, the first wave of Boomers were in their late 20s and had probably been sucking up jobs like crazy for two years by then. Note that the very first wave of the GenX were maybe clearing graduate school right around 1992ish as the last cohorts of Boomers were coming through.

It is only the very tail end of the Baby Boom generation that was facing their search for a faculty job without any sort of mandatory retirement in place to clear out the generation that came before them. Gen X has, in contrast, faced this for all of their professorial job seeking in academia.

The famous Figure 1-2 of the aforementioned Bridges to Independence report tells the NIH grant tale. For reference the front of the Boomer wave was 36 right when the chart starts in 1980. The GenX front edge was this age round about 2001. The difference in the percent of successful applicants for NIH funding could not be any more obvious. By that time, the cohort of funded applicants 35 years or younger was reduced to a fourth or a fifth as large as it had been when the Boomers were their age.

These two issues are, of course, related. Gen X could not secure jobs as early as did the Boomers and so were always 5+ years behind anyway.

This is not absolution. Quite the contrary.

Five years of building wealth is a long time. Especially when you add the 20 years of generational time into relative inflation of housing costs and student loan generating educational costs. Boomers had fewer outstanding student loan dollars because, Oh, that’s right, the prior generations built OUTSTANDING public-funded Universities for the Boomer’s to attend for very low costs. Which the Boomers promptly decided to stop paying for once they reached the workforce, voting age and started backing Republicanism with respect to taxes and public goods/investments, even if they otherwise pretended to be Democrats. Boomers had lower relative housing costs by far.

Which brings me back to the excuses Professor Fitzgerald outlines as she is, I think(?), attempting to chivvy her compatriots into decent behavior.

Not all of us can afford to. Money is a key reason why many faculty members keep working. It is hard to accept a big pay cut — which is what most retirement arrangements involve — when we are still the sole or primary breadwinner. In addition, some of us didn’t plan ahead financially. I know there are those (mostly economists?) who figured out their retirement options in their first month on the job. But the rest of us didn’t, and some of us even pushed aside financial planning until really late in the game, like at age 60, by which time our options were limited.

This is the part that is setting GenX SciTweeter’s collective hair on fire. OMG, we are thinking. After all these generational advantages you have enjoyed you STILL think you need MORE!??!!! Sole or primary breadwinner? O M G that brings up ANOTHER factor which is that modern academics cannot always just expect to support another non-working person as their spouse!!!!! Gen X academia just fricken EXPECTS that of course both spouses are going to be working, how else could we possibly survive?

Yes my hair is most assuredly on fire, Dear Reader.

Professor Fitzgerald’s piece had gone through a positive litany of deadwood accusations, fessing up to them, just before this. She admitted that her rapidly emeritizing peers didn’t actually want to work, shoved most onerous responsibilities in the department onto younger faculty and STILL says they feel entitled to cruise along, taking salary BECAUSE THEY DIDN’T PLAN WELL and can’t face losing any income. Even, I guess, faculty who got a Dean upgrade to their compensation some time ago and probably, going by the way things usually work, never really lost all of that extra compensation as the go back to regular faculty.

These, I will note are some of the faculty that write “just one more NIH grant” to make it to retirement. They said that last recession, btw, so this is round two for some of them. These are the faculty that NIH Program decides need the R56 Bridge or “just one last” pickup because they are otherwise out of funding and “would have to close their lab”.

It is easy to see the people who are in front of us. It is easy to see the people we have seen in front of us for decades.

It is really, really hard to see the people who haven’t had a chance yet.

It is even harder, impossible even, to see the opportunity cost of losing the full potential contribution of those who are “doing just fine“.

I don’t know what the solution is. I try as hard as I can on this blog to get people to grapple with the do-it-to-Julia problem of pointing the finger desperately at those other guys over there. I very sincerely mean that we are not going to solve all of the issues by putting some sort of mandatory retirement into place. Not at all. But this doesn’t mean that there aren’t certain….realities. I try to get people to grapple with the zero sum nature of the NIH funding, the endless creation of new mouths to feed and the ever marching encrappification of life as a grant funded academic scientist. I occasionally muse about the wisdom of “saving” a lab with 5 years max to run, and 30+ years of wonderful opportunities taken, versus never letting one with 30 year future even start. Or even just saving one with 15 years to go instead. I wonder (okay, complain) about the wisdom of NIH’s tepid buyoff schemes that are occasionally bruited about-where emeritizing Profs are supposed to be a paid nanny to a younger person’s award.

Whenever I point out these generational facts of life, or even try to have a discussion, the Boomers freak the fuck out. How dare I? I’m morally certain that some of them have punished, and probably still do punish, me at grant review for daring to talk about careerism, priorities and the history of our business on this blog. Also for my apparent lack of respect for seniority when it came to my years appointed on a study section when I was just past early, early career. No doubt I get some Program Officer decisions going against me for the same reasons. They are Boomers too.

My online friends who happen to be Boomers get really, really angry with me too. How dare I? They didn’t enjoy any of this supposed Boomer privilege I am describing. Why, they are a woman in science! or a POC in science. Or something. They never had it good. Look at all the suffering they went through and are going through. THEY HAVE LESS GRANT SUCCESS THAN SOME GENXers OF THEIR ACQUAINTANCE SO CLEARLY THIS IS BULLSHIT!!!!! AIIIIIIEEEEE.

They can only look up and see how other people had it better. Because nobody can ever, ever, ever look themselves in the mirror and admit that they had some privileges relative to anyone else. Even their like to like comparison person in a different generation.

See, DM, they shout at YHN. You go first! You are so selfless, let’s see you retire. Or stop seeking grants. We’ll show you!

I get that in these discussions. One way or another. And as I’ve said repeatedly in similar discussion, I’m no different than anyone else. I like my job and I plan to work to keep it. I am far, far away from making any declarations, such as Professor Fitzgerald is making in her Op/Ed, about my retirement plans.

Don’t get me wrong. I feel privileged to have been given an opportunity for directing grant funded science, sure. I feel very, very lucky that the opportunity was handed to me by the world when it was, and not afterwards, since things kept getting crappier and crappier for the kids these days who followed me. And I don’t feel particularly entitled and deserving of an easy ride in the NIH grant getting game.


That’s the operative term here.

I do feel entitled to a fair shake. From the perspective of now, yes, but also from a historical perspective. And that my friends confounds me. Because this is what smells to me like falling a little too far into entitlement.

Is it? I don’t know. Is it MAGA thinking? Longing for a day that cannot possibly ever be returned to us? Can we never find ANY way to make things a little more livable in this career?

The corona crisis is giving us more time, seemingly, for online and offline navel gazing about the career. Me likey, obviously, but I’m not optimistic. We get new voices involved but we just keep treading the same ground.

And shouting at each other.

Like this.